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Monday, 15 February 2010

Inland: common ground between Gerald Murnane and Samuel Beckett


[W]riting never explains anything for me - it only shows me how stupendously complicated everything is. – Gerald Murnane

You may recall that back in June I wrote a review of Gerald Murnane’s novel The Plains. It was a book I consider a wee gem although not one most readers would jump at. It certainly moved me enough to seek out another of his works. I wouldn't call what follows a 'review', however, just a few observations I've tried to pull together. For something closer to a traditional review check out Lisa Hill's article here. We cover a little of the same ground but our approaches are certainly different enough to justify the existence of both our articles.

As this turned out to be a very long post it will be my only post this week.

Gerald Murnane's fifth book, Inland, was published in Australia in 1988. (It's not a novel, he doesn't refer to any of his books as novels.) Shortly thereafter a UK edition appeared, an unusual event considering the sales even in his homeland were quite limited. Only the illustrious Times Literary Supplement reviewed the book here but Murnane wasn't impressed by what they had to say. In a letter to Paul Genoni[1] of the Curtin University of Technology Murnane mentioned that he considered their review both "stupid" and "uncomprehending" so it's with some reticence that I sit here and attempt to convey what I thought of this book. I'm certainly not qualified to give an educated opinion since much of the source material he refers to in the book is unfamiliar to me but I have nevertheless formulated a valid opinion.

Beckett Let me begin by referencing an author I am more comfortable discussing, Samuel Beckett. I have read all of Beckett's novels and I can tell you that although The Unnamable might not be the last of his novels you should tackle, it should by no means be the first; at the very least one should have read Molloy and Malone Dies beforehand and probably Murphy. I suspect that similar might be said about Inland. Although I have only read The Plains this did make approaching Inland a less daunting task even though there are as many differences as there are similarities.

The most glaring of these is that The Plains is linear and has a plot, albeit not much of one; it is also written in the third person. Inland jumps back and forth in time, the perspective of its unnamed narrator changes frequently and it is so fragmented that there is really no discernable storyline. This will be a problem for many readers although I would suggest that if you have managed to cope with Beckett's mindscapes then Murnane's Inland will make far more sense to you. Many have observed, for example, that Endgame takes place in a set that resembles the inside of a human skull. Well, that is also where Inland takes place.

All writing is translation. I am translating just now. I am translating the thoughts in my head into words. I can imagine Murnane nodding away if he ever reads those last three sentences because, after I wrote them, I discovered this sentence in Barley Patch: "At … times, I have supposed that every item in my mind is a term in a language that has not yet been translated into English." Murnane chose to call his book Inland but he could just as easily have entitled it Interzone or Oz (pun intended) or Mindscape because to begin to understand where he's coming from you have to translate the world 'inland', you have to decide what it means.

In a recent radio interview[2] this is what he had to say about his approach to writing:

[A] book that contains plot and dialogue seems to me to work on the assumption that all a reader wants from reading is the illusion that he or she is seeing real events re-enacted. Or even, worse still from my point of view, watching a film. So this simple-minded sort of reader is supposed to pick up a book, read an opening sentence that said, 'Cynthia and Cyril strolled aimlessly along the foreshore,' and then all that the reader has to do is read those words and there's a beautiful little scene like the opening of a film, Cynthia and Cyril walking along the foreshore, and if the reader waits a little longer he or she will be told what colour hair Cynthia had and how tall Cyril was and how good-looking or whatever. My fiction steps aside or avoids that, to me, simple-minded way of doing things. My fiction is a report of what takes place in the mind of a writer. It may have characters or 'personages' is my favourite word, there may be personages like Cynthia and Cyril in it, but there will be lots more.

No plot, no dialogue, no characters – this is clearly a writer after Beckett's heart (Beckett famously said: "the best possible play is one in which there are no actors, only the text."[3]) Although I doubt he was ever aware of the Australian I can't imagine Murnane being unaware of Beckett.

Proust There is common ground to be found: the writer Marcel Proust who in many ways set the benchmark for writing about memory. Both writers reference him often; Murnane has even been called "Australia's Proust"[4] and he's certainly written about his debt to the Frenchman in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. Beckett, of course, wrote a whole book about Proust. I've read that there are many nods to Proust in Inland but only knowing his work tangentially I guess I missed most of them nevertheless his spirit is unmistakeable. Proust suggests, in In Search of Lost Time, that in reality, as soon as each hour of one's life has died, it embodies itself in some material object and hides there. There it remains captive forever unless we should happen on the object, recognise what lies within, call it by its name, and so set it free.

With Murnane the 'objects'[5] are places mostly – Bendigo especially, where he grew up, featuring strongly in Inland – authors he has read (e.g. Emily Brontë, Thomas Hardy and W H Auden amongst others) as well as his Catholic upbringing; his love of horseracing having been dealt with in other books is only lightly touched upon here. A single sentence, a quote by Paul Éluard (There is another world but it is this one.) proves especially significant.

Beckett was not what you'd call an autobiographical writer but once you study him it's impossible to ignore the fact that he used his own life as the basis for much of his writing. Murnane does the same. His writing is clearly rooted in the Australian landscape but it's only a jumping off point for his imagination; the Australia he describes in The Plains and the lands he describes in Inland are a mishmash of real and imagined places, biographical facts, memories (and just as importantly things misremembered), literary references and things he has just made up and, exactly as is the case with Beckett, I think one can get bogged down in trying to see him in the work rather than to discern meaning if one's not too careful.

It is, of course, impossible not to see him in his books. In fact we really should ask the question: Why, more like one of the confessional poets than a novelist, has he chosen to use himself as a template? He asks himself that very question early on in his latest book, Barley Patch:[6]

A reader of this work of fiction may be wondering why I had to insinuate a version of myself into the scenery of so many novels or short stories when I might have chosen from the male characters in each work a young man or a boy and might afterwards have felt as though I shared in his fictional life. My answer to that reader is the simple statement that I had never met up with any young male character with whom I could feel the sympathy needed for such a sharing.

Barley Patch I think his approach to writing has something to do with his approach to reading because, again in Barley Patch, he talks about living vicariously as it were as the "ghost of a character" moving freely throughout the book and through his head.

Okay, let's look for some meaning in Inland. The book opens:

I am writing in the library of a manor-house, in a village I prefer not to name, near the town of Kunmadaras, in Szolnok County.

These words trailing away behind the point of my pen are words from my native language. Heavy-hearted Magyar, my editor calls it. She may well be right.

Granted none of Beckett's characters spend much time in such plush surroundings (Molloy, briefly, but I can't think of another) but this is a typically Beckettian trope: a man alone in a room with his thoughts.

Kunmadaras is a village in Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok County, in the Northern Great Plain region of central Hungary; it is a real place. Murnane has never been. It's a well-known fact that he's barely left Western Victoria all his life, so that's made up. It was impossible for me, having read The Plains not to think about the filmmaker installed in the library of one of the great houses in the Australian plains and, since I had no idea we were in Hungary when I read that opening sentence, I thought that's where we were.

Hungarian is a language that Murnane delights in. As far as he's concerned "the angels speak Hungarian."[7] He recorded his struggle and joy to learn the language in a book of essays, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. The unnamed narrator of Inland says he's writing in Hungarian but what we're reading is clearly in English. So, did Murnane think this opening section, perhaps even the entire book, first in Hungarian and then as Beckett did with most of his own works translate it into another language? I don't know. Having a poor grasp of any language bar English I can't imagine thinking in a foreign tongue but I'm told that it can be done. Since we know that the narrator is writing to his editor perhaps what we're actually reading is her translation of his words if indeed she exists at all other than in his mind for we can be certain that neither the narrator nor his editor have ever existed except in Murnane's mind . . . and then in mine . . . and now in yours.

Murnane's narrator says he has never met his translator and yet he writes:

I know that she writes at a desk in a room with books around the walls and a wide window overlooking a prairie.

This may or may not be the case because the narrator admits that he needs to take greater care "to distinguish between what I see and what I remember and what I dream of myself seeing or remembering." He is writing about thinking about writing, the man in the book that is; he is writing or at least thinking about writing to a reader (which I naturally assumed was me but I am who Murnane is writing to) and what he is thinking about writing is, first of all, an account of his native grasslands that his editor will hopefully translate and include in the publication, Hinterland, which she expects to become the editor of, secondly, he thinks about writing a more personal correspondence to her alone, one that would not require any translating; in reality he is only writing about what he has written, what has been written to him by his editor and the fact that he suspects that the correspondence he has received ostensibly from her is actually from one of her rivals because her appointment to the position of editor is not certain; indeed she writes to him:

Write to me … Send me your paragraphs, your pages, your stories of the Great Alfold. Write what may well decide my future in the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute.

It may or may not be one of her rivals that have been in correspondence with the narrator, it may actually have been the woman's husband who the narrator imagines is sufficiently jealous to do such a thing. He even imagines the man forging his (i.e. the narrator's signature) on a letter telling her of his death though how he might do such a thing post-mortem is not explained. He then imagines himself wandering about the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute as if he were a ghost although he never uses the word but a couple of pages later he writes of an interchange between himself and another writer who arrives one day unexpectedly at the front door of his manor-house, a man he imagines may actually be a ghost.

I have seen the editor in this book spoken of as a ghost-writer. I didn't think this was a very accurate description of translating until I read this definition by Dominique Hecq, a Belgian-born writer now living in Melbourne:

The act of translating indeed entails both a reading and a writing, and therefore a ghosting of the voice at first and second removes.[8]

Later in the essay Hecq paraphrases Freud – "writing is indeed communication with the absent, the reverse of speech, which has its origin in presence" – which led me to On Private Madness by André Green which she appears to have used as research material. This quote is most illuminating:

In writing, no one is present. To be more precise, the potential and anonymous reader is absent by definition. He might even be dead. This situation of absence is a prerequisite for all written communication. But here, absence is compounded by the fact that writing is not the transcribed speech of simple communication. Writing fashions this dimension of absence while it re-presents, while (in a certain sense) it renders present. In another sense, writing deepens this dimension of absence which endows it with its specificity.[9]

Just as a potential reader might be dead by the time the writer finishes writing his book, so might the writer be dead by the time the reader reads what he has written. The deadness of the authors in the narrator's library – which he never reads, preferring to simply stare at the spines of the books – is something Murnane's narrator makes much of almost as if to say that to qualify as a true writer one needs to be dead first. At one point the narrator's ghostly visitor leaps to his feet and launches into one of the few bits of actual speech in the book (Murnane is not big on dialogue):

"I am a writer of books. I am a ghost. While I was writing I died and became a ghost. While I was writing I saw ghosts of hundreds of books that I have never seen, nor will ever see, in libraries where ghosts of men that I have never seen, nor will ever see, dreamed of writing to young women in America. I saw ghosts of my own books in ghosts of libraries where no one comes to unlock the glass doors of bookcases. I saw ghosts of men staring sometimes at ghosts of glass panels. I saw ghosts of images of clouds drifting through the ghost of an image of sky behind ghosts of covers and spines and ghosts of books. I saw ghosts of images of pages white or grey drifting through the same ghost of an image of sky. And I went on writing so that ghosts of images of pages of mine would drift over ghosts of plains in a ghost of a world towards ghosts of images of skies in libraries of ghosts of the ghosts of books."

Lilacs It's worth taking note of a sentence from Invisible yet Enduring Lilacs at this point:

My sentences arise out of images and feelings that haunt me – not always painfully; sometimes quite pleasantly.

That sentence could be applied to many writers but you could easily hear Beckett say something like that. Indeed, probably more than most authors, ghosts feature in his plays, poems and prose; frequently even his ghosts feel like they have ghosts (e.g. the unseen mother in Footfalls) and this idea also crops up in Inland.

Like much of Beckett's writing, Inland can be described as 'metafiction', a term I find myself coming across more and more; it is a kind of writing that is peculiarly interested in itself, in the relationship between the reader and the writer. In exactly the same way as an actor reminds us that we are watching a play, by addressing the audience directly[10], so do novelists break down this 'fourth wall' with sentences like the ones that open Italo Calvino's novel If On A Winter's Night A Traveller[11]:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel If On a Winter's Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade..."

Calvino Right from the off your relationship to the book is established, though if we're being picky you are not about to begin reading, you have already begun reading. Murnane also frequently refers to his "reader" directly commenting on the writing process. If Calvino rings a bell with you this might be because of the reference earlier in this article to where the editor works: "the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute". Murnane clearly wants to hammer home the nature of the work we are engaged with.

So, who is Dahlberg? That's a good question and one few people will have an answer to. I'd certainly never heard of him. I did a bit of research and I came up with this quote from Gilbert Sorrentino:

Dahlberg is a writer whose work cannot be tamed or reduced or assimilated. He is a subversive and destructive master of prose, who is, at his best, so good that he takes your breath away. He is also zany, goofy, loopy, misogynistic, deeply prejudiced, bitter, nasty, paranoid and absolutely unfair. He has no politics that any politician could possibly find useful, and he is a great agent of the truth that only art can purvey. He is a great American writer, astonishingly original, a virtuoso without peers, and probably much too good for us. That he is hardly known and hardly read, that he is virtually ignored by academics, that he is still rather regularly mocked and patronized by literary scum, all testifies to our unerring vulgarity as a people – our vulgarity and stupidity. The circumstances of his life turned him into a desolate, half-crazed misanthrope, but as an artist he is the very definition of integrity and purity.[12]

Now one has to wonder if Murnane was born in Boston rather than Melbourne what kind of writer he would have turned out to be. (The narrator in Inland wonders much the same, what if he "had been born in the district between the North Platte … and the South Platte" rather than "the grasslands between the Moonee Ponds and the Merri.") I can certainly see certain affinities but it might be something simpler than that. Dahlberg's best known work, Because I was Flesh, begins:

Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvellous river, the Missouri, heats the senses; the maple, alder, elm and cherry trees with which the town abounds are songs of desire, and only the almonds of ancient Palestine can awaken the hungry pores more deeply.

Kerouac That sentence alone would not look out of place in Inland. Whatever Murnane's reasons it's clear that there is a connection between him and Dahlberg. Perhaps he came to him via Kerouac, another of Murnane's recorded influences.

Fortunately there aren't too many references like this to bog us down because there's a great danger with Murnane that one could get caught up with studying him as opposed to reading him which is a problem I have with Beckett.

At this point I think it's only fair to mention that I've barely scratched the surface of the first section of this book. Things don't get any clearer with the beginning of the second section which starts:

I am writing about myself standing in the garden of a large house – but by no means a manor house – between the Hopkins River and Russells Creek.

Eh? Suddenly the action (I use the term loosely) has moved from Hungary to Australia. So where is he? Where he's always been, in his head. Remember he wrote, “I am writing about myself standing…" and not, "I am standing…" – is he deceiving us? Actually he asserts the very opposite:

I am sorry for you, reader, if you think of me as deceiving you. I can hardly forget the trick that you played on me. You allowed me to believe for a long tine that I was writing to a young woman I called my editor. Safe in the depths of your glass-walled Institute, you even had me addressing you as reader and friend. Now, you still read and I still write but neither of us will trust the other.

Although he's imagining his his body is in Australia he immediately begins talking about North America and describing the landscape there in what's best described as cartographic terms. If you're unfamiliar with Australian landmarks (as I was when I first read this) it's easy to think that he's now physically in the States.

It's also very easy when you're reading a book and read the word "reader" to assume, as in the case of the Calvino, that we're the one being addressed but this is not the case here. The narrator doesn't actually know the identity of his reader, he only suspects that it is someone within the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute and yet he still continues to write.

The thread the book begins to follow now is more of a memoir concentrating on his transition from boy through boy-man to man. In case we were in any doubt the narrator of the second section is the same as the first since both suffer from an inability to smell, a condition that Murnane also suffers from. Just like Beckett took some of his own physical ailments and passed them onto his characters, so Murnane has done the same. But remember all of this is taking place in his head so one has to wonder if you couldn't smell would the 'you' in your dreams be similarly disabled.

There is an argument that all fiction is really autobiography. I don't buy it but I do accept that everything we write is affected by who we are and what we have done in our lives. We can liken our lives to a journey and of course any journey can be mapped. Maps feature heavily in this book or at least geographical locations which I interpreted as maps. That this is what Murnane might have wished me to do is suggested by this section:

Your body is a sign of you, perhaps: a sign marking the place where the true part of you begins.

The true part of you is far too far-reaching and much too many-layered for you or me, reader, to read about or to write about. A map of the true part of you, reader, would show every place where you have been from your birthplace to the place where you sit now reading this page.

This being established our narrator now makes this promise:

Trust me or not, reader, but whatever I write about myself having done, I will always write about places. I will name the streams on either side wherever I am; I will match landscape with landscape.

which brings us to the concept of liminality:

We are obsessed with boundaries. Places are divided and sub-divided in a complex web of overlapping patterns of 'ownership', 'sacredness', 'historic interest', 'outstanding natural beauty' and much else. A simple car journey will take us past signs marking the entry and exit of each parish, less frequently past county boundary signs or through the 'portals' of National Parks such as Derbyshire with its prominent millstones. Leaving the road (note, again, the sense of boundary) will take us along rights of way allowing access through otherwise private property, perhaps with distinctive 'Keep Out' signs.

But not only do we create boundaries in space. Our sense of time is similarly preoccupied. Even in our secular age we celebrate seasonal boundaries such as New Year as well as calendar-based religious festivals such as Christmas.[13]

Murnane spends much of this book talking about transitions particularly the transition from child to adult and several of his 'personages' are distinguished by their liminal states, the 'betwixt and between' phases, specifically boy-man and girl-woman. And indeed, only a few pages into the book's second section, we find our narrator's focus changing once again, back to Australia to his grandmother's house where he spent a month of his summer holiday during the years when he thought of himself as changing from a boy to a man.

He doesn't describe the location except in relation to his own house (which is in the "district of swamps and heaths between Scotchman's Creek and Elster Creek" in Melbourne County) saying that his own house is as far north from his grandmother's house "as the junction of the North Platte and the South Platte is from Ideal in South Dakota." Most places in the book are described by their relationship to rivers or streams. Both these creeks are real places (in her article Lisa Hill describes them) unlike many of the places he mentions particularly in America: Ideal, Paradox, Bedrock, Dinosaur, Climax and Gateway. In this respect the entire book can be said to exist in a liminal state somewhere between the rivers Fact and Fiction; it's a ghost of a book.

The narrator describes his native district as being "between the Moonee Ponds and the Merri" which are both areas of Victoria and yet he writes:

I assure you that the district between the Moonnee Ponds and the Merri is a part of the same America that you have always lived in. – italics mine

Has he changed the names "to confuse" his imagined reader in the Institute? He will only say: "You can only suppose I am still dreaming today," and he explains no further. Later it becomes a little clearer when he talks about writing down "the name of a street in a district of Melbourne County" which "might also be the name of a town … [in] South Dakota" or the "name of a town in a book which is partly about a lilac tree and a row of tamarisk trees" (presumably either Tamarisk Row or Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs). America, Australia, Hungary and all the fictional places he's written about are all really part of one place, the vast 'inland' in his head. And, yes, it is confusing.

Victoria Map

In the middle of the book the narrator interjects a thought about how the subject matter of his writings has changed:

Someone reading this page deep in the Institute of Prairie Studies may wonder why a man of my age and standing writes at this table for day after day about a twelve-year-old child. But I am not writing about a twelve-year-old child. Each person is more than one person. I am writing about a man who sits at a table in a room with books around the wall and who writes for day after day with a heaviness pressing on him.

"Each person is more than one person," "[s]ome places are many more than one place," "each name is more than one name" – similar expressions crop up a number of times in the book expressing the thought that not only are we in a liminal state we also exist in multiple states: I am a fifty-year-old man but in my head I can be any age I choose; I can even be an old man. I can even imagine what I would have imagined myself to be like at fifty when I was only twelve which is something Murnane wouldn't think twice about writing about:

Writing about his own experience, the central character in many of Murnane’s texts presents, as mentioned, a double or treble perspective. He is seeing himself from his position in the present evoking memories of a place in the past when he as a young man was looking towards the future, imagining the place where he would find himself then. Typically enough words like “remember” and “foresee” are frequently used.


By his selective zooming-in technique Murnane offers a multidimensional orientation. Time can be seen “as one more sort of plain” (The Plains 75, 90) because “[w]hen a man considers his youth, his language seems to refer more often to a place than to its absence, and to a place unobscured by any notion of Time as a veil or barrier” (P 75). Within this network of relational interdependence the boundaries between time and place, between life and art become blurred. Events do not follow in a serial order that expresses underlying causal laws: “My world has no forward and no back only a place here and a million million other places near or further away” (Velvet Waters 152):

In all the world there has never been, there is not, and there will never be any such thing as time. There is only place. Eternity is here already, and it has no mystery about it; eternity is just another name for this endless scenery where we wander from one place to another. (Velvet Waters 152)[14]

The perspective thing is probably best understood by thinking about Beckett's Krapp as an old man listening to a recording of himself as a younger man: the younger man is talking both about his past and the future he anticipates while the old man he has actually become interjects comments.

The Plains Cover By considering these quotes from Velvet Waters and The Plains you should be starting to realise why Murnane doesn't think of his works as novels per se. They are merely extracts from a much bigger work, one that is contained within him from which he has extracted and translated excerpts for the benefit of those who will be left after he has gone, primarily his three sons, the custodians of his legacy. This work is contained in forty-odd metal filing cabinets in his home. (I think it stands at forty-seven at the moment but it is clearly a work in progress.)

What is the purpose of writing? This is a question he tackles in his most recent book, Barley Patch, which I have yet to read, but I would suggest that all writing is exploration. Murnane has chosen to restrict his palette to himself. So what is he looking for? A pattern. The narrator of Inland writes:

I thought of becoming a scientist of patterns. I might have studied some of the thousands of patterns that might have appeared among the hundreds of things in the soils in all the districts between all the streams in Melbourne County.

He's trying – aren't we all? – to make sense out of his life. By 'he' I mean Murnane. His narrator is purely a tool, someone to dig into the 'inland' on his behalf. In 'The Breathing Author', one of the essays in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, Murnane confesses that "I have sometimes thought of the whole enterprise of my fiction-writing as an effort to bring to light an underlying order – a vast pattern of connected images – beneath everything that I am able to call to mind". I relate to that statement very strongly. Patterns are something very evident in Beckett's works, especially his later plays "which focus on structural, visual and/or aural patterns in which the characters themselves are the 'pieces' of the game, heteronomy and audience reaction tend to become increasingly unstable and disoriented."[15]

A book is a plain. It is flat and two-dimensional plane. It is only for our convenience that it comes to us chopped up into pages and bound. When Kerouac famously wrote On the Road he taped pages together into a single sheet so he wouldn't have to stop to load a fresh page; in effect he was writing on a scroll which is how books used to be written. It is a perfect metaphor for how Murnane writes even if he does do it with one finger on one of three decades-old manual typewriters. Where the metaphor falls down is the fact that a scroll is linear and Murnane's writing has become less and less so:

In Murnane the cause and effect process is still present, but instead of propelling the story ahead along a linear time it generates a sprawling narrative which disperses itself in all directions. This fragmentation subverts the stable notion of `centre', be it a narrative's ending, the final destination of a journey or the paradigmatic order inscribed in the linearity of time, and in so doing it re-describes the reader's perception of and relation with the text. What we confront is a set of texts deprived of a central and guiding narrative whose place is occupied instead by a myriad of narratives which constantly keep interlocking and referring to each other.[16]

This reminds me of a line used to describe Beckett's writing:

Multiplicity and fragmentation become singularity and wholeness.[17]

Murnane is a very careful writer, yet another similarity I see with Beckett, in fact Murnane's editor on Inland had this to say about the task:

I'm not sure what to call the opposite of speed-proofreading, but reading Gerald was it: this wasn't just reading line by line, but word by word, and confirming every comma. Gerald is a very exact writer, and proofreading him demands total concentration.[18]

When I don't get Beckett I always assume that the fault is mine. Perhaps that's putting the man on too high a pedestal but I feel much the same about Murnane. There is no doubt that what I am reading is what he intended to say. Bearing that in mind I think it would be cocky to suggest, certainly not after a single reading, that I understand Inland. I understand what he's attempting here which is a start. It's certainly not a book I would universally recommend because more people will not like it and not get it than will come close, but there will be the adventurous among you, my readers, who will have got this far in this article and are still intrigued: just as I would wholeheartedly recommend Beckett’s The Unnamable to you, I would likewise direct you to check out Inland. But maybe read The Plains first. I'll certainly have no problems moving onto Barley Patch but maybe not right away.


murnane_1211 Murnane was born in Coburg, Melbourne, in 1939 and has almost never left the state of Victoria. Parts of his childhood were spent in Bendigo and and his grandparents' property near Warrnambool. 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.

Although not well known for most his life since his late sixties he has started to receive some high profile awards: in 1999 he won the Patrick White award for a writer whose work is deemed to be under recognised, in 2007 a Special Award in the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, in 2008 the Australia Council emeritus award and in 2009 the Melbourne Prize for Literature. He has been nominate for the Nobel Prize but failed to win; hopefully there is still time.



[1] The Global Reception of Post-national Literary Fiction: The Case of Gerald Murnane

[2] Transcript of an interview with Peter Mares, originally broadcast on 12 October 2009

[3] Michael Worton, `Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theatre as Text′, p67, in The Cambridge Companion to Beckett, ed., John Pilling

[4] Comment by film reviewer D J Ross on the documentary Words and Silk

[5] The list at the end of Changing Geographies (pp17-26) is illuminating although is does cover more than simply Inland

[6] A sizeable chunk of Barley Patch is available online here courtesy of The Review of Contemporary Fiction

[7] From a radio conversation with Tom Champion, another Australian writer similarly besotted with the Hungarian language; broadcast 21 September 2009

[8] 'Enter ghosts, authors and translators' in Text, Vol. 13 No 1, April 2009

[9] On Private Madness, p321

[10] Far from pretending that their stage has four walls, Gogo and Didi, in Waiting for Godot, are highly conscious of the theatregoers watching them. "Inspiring prospects" is Estragon’s comment directed towards the audience and later, like an usher, he directs Vladimir to the men’s room: "End of the corridor, on the left" to which Vladimir responds: "Keep my seat."

[11] Italo Calvino as Author/Game-master in If on a winter's night a traveller

[12] from an interview with Alexander Laurence in 1994

[13] Bob Trubshaw, The metaphors and rituals of place and time - an introduction to liminality

[14] Karin Hansson, Gerald Murnane's Changing Geographies

[15] Merle Tönnies, 'Players, Playthings and Patterns: Three Stages of Heteronomy in Beckett's Mature Drama' in Samuel Beckett: endlessness in the year 2000, p194

[16] Paolo Bartoloni, 'Spatialised time and circular time: a note on time in the work of Gerald Murnane and Jorge-Luis Borges' in Australian Literary Studies, October 1997

[17] James E Robinson, 'Sisyphus Happy: Beckett beyond the Absurd' in Samuel Beckett: crossroads and borderlines, p349

[18] John Bangsund in 'Why I Don't Write for a Living', The Society of Editors Newsletter, November 1993


Kass said...

Couldn't we all say that our work is under recognized? Wouldn't it be nice if we could each get an award for this?

This exploration of Murnane is as sprawling as his narratives. From your description of his writing, his work must be like the cowboy who threw himself on his horse and rode off in all directions.

I usually have trouble with no narrative or even interlocking ones.

I like the idea of no time - only place - the purpose of writing being exploration and the patterns of connected images, scrolling beneath the mind.

I also liked Andre Green's ghostly concept of writing for someone who may be dead, and the reader reading an author who is dead. I've never thought much about this relationship before. It fits in with the whole enigma of no time - only place. We could also play around with no place - only time, because sometimes that's all we have.

I'm intrigued by liminality, boundaries and transitions, but I'm not as patient as you are and will probably not read Murnane. I will probably read more Beckett, though.

Elisabeth said...

Hi Jim. You know I'm delighted to read this wonderfully long and as Kass suggests meandering review of Gerald Murnane's work.

I'll put in a plug for GM's writing here, especially for Kass who suggests she probably won't read him.

If you can bear, try reading the book with the extraordinary title, 'Invisible but Enduring Lilacs', Kass. It's series of essays that introduce the writer, his writing and his thinking. It's wonderful.

I know GM well because, as you know Jim we are correspondents, namely we write letters snail mail to one another every few weeks. We have done so for several years.

There are others, among GM's friends who have corresponded with him for longer.

If GM were computer literate - he refuses to use one - he'd be a blogger, I suspect. He loves to communicate through writing.

He is like so many of our fellow bloggers who prefer to put their thoughts into words on the page rather than share them orally.

I shall say more to you in an email tomorrow, Jim, or else, as you can imagine, this post will get far too long.

Anonymous said...

Your post is superb, Jim, and it makes me want to dump everything I'm reading now, head for my Beckett shelves and then read Murnane all over again.
(Mind you, after reading that GM ticked off the TLS for their 'stupid' review, I'm rather relieved he doesn't read blogs like mine LOL!)

Jim Murdoch said...

Don’t say that too loud, Kass, or someone will dream up an award and it’ll start doing the rounds of all the blogs.

I think the important thing for me reading someone like Murnane (or indeed Beckett) is that it shows me the possibilities of literature. People get into a rut thinking that their stories should all have beginnings and middles and endings and follow a whole set of made-up rules and they really don’t. This results in superficial writing, stories that are just that and no more. I think you need to distinguish ‘writing’ from ‘storytelling’. I have a story which I’m having a deuce of a time getting published because I give the omniscient narrator a personality and attitude and he isn’t content just to ‘read’ us a story, no, he wants to get involved, to comment on it, and us. It was a bit of an experiment and maybe it doesn’t work perfectly but it’s not just a story.

Beckett I cannot recommend enough. To my mind one of the best ways to approach his work is though his plays rather than his writing. In this respect we’re quite blessed because there are plenty of uploads online. And they’re short. Most of them anyway. Avoid the very early and late prose. The early stuff owes a great deal to Joyce and is just a wall of words; the late prose is stripped down to next-to-nothing and very dense. I intend to write an article on one of these late texts sometime this year but not sure which one yet.

Lis, I knew you’d need no convincing here and I’ll be pleased to hear whatever you want to add to my own observations.

And, Lisa, glad you appreciated this. Murnane may not be electronically connected to the World Wide Web but he’s has no problems reading printouts of it. Lis has already sent him a copy of my review of The Plains and I have no doubt that he’ll end up with a copy of this one to stick in one of his filing cabinets. I hope he doesn’t think I’m stupid. ‘Well intentioned’ I could live with.

Kass said...

ELISABETH AND JIM - I thank you so much for your suggestions. I'll do it. Murnane is lucky to have two such loyal followers.

Kass said...

Jim - Forgot to add that I am immensely interested in your narrator with an attitude. Sign me on.

Elisabeth said...

GM says that he has learned all he knows about fiction from Wayne C Booth's book, The Rhetoric of Fiction.

I once sent GM some of my writing for assessment. GM was generous in appraising my writing. In his critique of my work he made many suggestions some of which I include here to give you all a feel for the man and his writing. This might also be useful information for writers. I have certainly found it useful myself.

GM suggests that (and I quote)
'The person telling the story is an adult, but she wants to suggest at times the thoughts and feelings of a young girl. A balance or rather a suitable ratio has to be found. In all my years as a teacher I found most students did what you've done here: they tried too hard to "get into" the child's mind and ended by making the narrator seem herself too child-like to have composed the story. I can't tell you the right ratio but I'm sure there should be much more of the adult in the narrator than your sentence [She wouldn't want to hear what I had to say, I thought, when what I was thinking was making me feel so peculiar inside] admits.

After all the author and the reader are all adults, the narrator is reporting as an adult to adults something that happened to her as a girl.

Try to picture yourself sitting in a gathering of your best friends and exchanging stories of childhood. You decide to tell a story of what happened to you and your mother, mother making toast etc. Surely, surely, surely you would tell your story in adult language , only occasionally resorting to childish language in order to add urgency or a touch of "realism" to the narrative. (This may be the most valuable bit of advice I'm able to offer you in all these pages of comments). '

I find these comments, helpful. They refer to a story I wrote some time ago called 'Tip Story'. Afterwards I wrote a response to GM's comments which I have since called Tip Story Revisited, and which GM reckons is 'good fiction'.

I would have thought of my writing as autobiography but it's pretty clear to me now, from what GM says, that he makes no distinction between autobiography, biography and fiction. To him it's all fiction. His definition of fiction is a broad definition in some ways and I think there's some truth in it.

GM's not on about whether something is based in childhood experience or whether it's a complete fiction. To him it's fiction. If you read his writing you'll see what I mean. So much of his writing is clearly based on childhood experience but it is fictionalised in places.

Elisabeth said...

To continue: I made this recommendation already to Kass, but now I say it again to anyone reading this comment, if you want to read some of what I consider the most helpful of GM's writing see his series of 'essays' called Invisible but Enduring Lilacs. Practically all of the pieces have been published elsewhere, including the one about the fact that he never wears sunglasses etc. It's such a terrific collection and certainly led me to want to read more of his books, which I've done slowly.

His writing is such that you can dip in and out of it, start a book in the middle jump to the beginning and then go to the end.

GM seems so rigid in some of his thinking, he's perhaps compulsive in his behaviour, and yet his writing transcends boundaries and I think it is a taste of the best that post-modernism brings. Extraordinary.

Another comment that GM makes about fiction that I found interesting and helpful is (again I quote from his assessment of my tip story, written about the third page. GM comments as he reads, he comments on every single sentence before he gives an overall opinion. He's astute at picking up what the piece is going to be about even before he gets there.)

'I've read enough to know that this will be a rather interesting piece of fiction spoiled by the author's anxiety to write it as though she were drafting a screenplay to a film. (Fifty years ago such an author might have been anxious to write the script of a radio-play). There is film. There is radio-drama. Perhaps there is no longer. I hate all radio. No, very rarely I tune in my car radio to ABC Classic FM and catch something worth hearing. Although I sometimes have to listen to sport 927AM for a horse-race. But I hate interviews, talk-back and pseudo-intellectual stuff.)

'And, Elisabeth, there is prose fiction. I don't have to spell out for you the peculiar advantages that film and radio enjoy. But it seems that I do have to remind you of the one advantage that prose fiction enjoys. This is the presence of a narrator.

Elisabeth said...

'To continue my quotes from GM still further:

'Just think, Elisabeth! you are more than fifty years of age with a wealth of experience to impart to your readers. The sexual assault (or whatever it is) that will turn out to be the point of this story has by now given rise to many thoughtful reflections. The previous sentence is most awkward. [She dropped my hair, which uncoiled like a worm exposed to light and flopped into the chair, her hands folded in her lap. She looked directly at me. It seemed she wanted to tell me more. The grandfather clock in the lounge room struck ten and another spark leapt off the radiator bar, a burnt crumb that turned black instantly and fell like soot against the rippled metal of the radiator frame. The tap in the scullery was dripping.] What I'm trying to tell you is that you're going to needless trouble trying to write a film-script, with clocks striking and crumbs falling, when you have a wealth of material for a rich narration from a mostly adult viewpoint, e.g. I wanted to tell my mother everything that the man had done to me, but when she held my hair in her hands, I thought she might...? This is adult narration, an adult talking to adults about childhood.'

By now from Jim's review and these comments here you all probably get the drift of GM's style. He can be brutally frank in some of his comments. By the end of the story he wrote that he was sick of all the kiddie-talk, that the story which could be a good story failed to satisfy him because I failed as an adult narrator.

GM's ideas are unusual and he can sound awful but I don't think he is. When he writes about good and bad in his definitions etc I think he's alluding more to honest and dishonest.

GM is big about honesty, about being true to your own voice as a writer, not showing off, not trying too hard to impress your reader, not using what he calls 'false poetry etc. All of this makes huge sense to me.

I am very grateful to him. That's why I like to share his ideas around, but I don't think any of us should take him too literally or too absolutely. He writes about writing in absolutes but I think he writes his own stuff in a strangely flexible and very creative way. Still it doesn't appeal to a lot of people. He's a person of the past and I think a man for the future, a weird paradox. He's not so much read and enjoyed today.

All the quotes from GM come from my personal correspondence with him. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

Kass, you’re welcome. Murnane may not be right for you but you won’t know until you’ve had a look at him. Most people I’ve met in my day-to-day life don’t know who Samuel Beckett is and if I suggest, “Waiting for Godot” as a pointer they just look blankly at me. My boss, when he found out I was a writer, bought me a Flashman novel for Xmas that year for Christ’s sake!

Murnane is an example of a writer who, and Beckett is the same, has remained true to himself and has not bowed to market forces. That means you’re not going to sell much but what’s the point selling thousands of copies if people are going to quit after a page or two? I wonder how many people own an unread copy of A Brief History of Time? It was the book to buy for a while but way above most people. So why bother?

As for my bolshy narrator, I’ll send you a copy. It’s quite short.

And, Lis, I appreciate the lengthy comment here. I think it goes a long way to humanising Murnane. Yes, he has his oddities (and perhaps I’ve dwelled on them overly much in my two articles), but then we all do. The bottom line is that the man can write. That established we have to ask, “Why does he choose to write the way he does?” I’ve done the same with Beckett. Have a look at his late prose works and they’re barely in English. It would be easy to sniff at these and toss them aside – and if any young whippersnapper produced them that’s more than likely what would happen – but then you look at his earlier prose work, realise that this man is a master craftsman, and you say, “Okay, maybe there is method in his madness.”

As for Murnane's final comment about films and narrators – has he never heard of the voice-over?

Elisabeth said...

When you meet him in person, GM seems reasonably normal.

When you see 'Words and Silk', Jim assuming it works on your computer or DVD player or whatever, you'll see that GM must know about voice overs. They use them in this film.

GM also loves this film, he's proud of it.

It's the light weight stuff, and the old dictum, 'show don't tell' that gets up his nose.

He once told me that if he watched TV regularly it would interfere with his imagination. I think he prefers to keep his mind the way it is.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have no doubt that he does, Lis. I was being facetious. Started Barley Patch today on the bus. Not the ideal place to read but I intend to do a quick once through and then a close reading after. So far (48 pages) I’m liking it more than Inland although the same themes are rearing their heads. There’s an expression he uses several times that’s straight out of Beckett. I just can’t remember which Beckett piece, a play I think. I’ll have to find out or I’ll go mad.

Jim Murdoch said...

Got it, Lis. It’s from Not I where Mouth uses the expression “the buzzing ... so-called”. Murnane uses a similar expression – “what could be called” – indicating that the word chosen is really a stopgap for a better but as yet unknown expression. Interesting.

Dave King said...

I'm getting too old for this. I had no recollection at all of reading your review of The Plains, so I followed your link to it, wondering how I had missed it, read it through with great interest - and then discovered that I had commented on it!

There is a sense in which none of us can escape the singleton alone in a room with his thoughts, I think. When we read a book we are perhaps doing exactly that with another's thoughts standing in for our own.

I can relate to your observation that all writing is translation, and I found the comparison of Murnane with Beckett intriguing. I must introduce myself to the one and renew acquaintance with the other.

Jim Murdoch said...

Dave, I can barely remember writing my review of The Plains! I mention my poor memory from time to time but seriously, since I usually write my posts well in advance (I have a stockpile of 15 at the moment) by the time I post them I have usually no idea what they’re about and have to reread them when people pass certain comments. I tried to post a comment on someone’s site a few days ago but for some reason it wouldn’t let me so I e-mailed her the comment. A few days later I got a wee e-mail apologising for not replying. I’d forgotten I’d e-mailed her and if you asked me now what I was on about I couldn’t tell you. So, my friend, you are far from alone.

I’ve made a start on Barley Patch but got distracted a few pages into it and ended up having to stop and write a post but what I’ve read so far has been very good.

Unknown said...

Fascinating exploration of literary ground, like topography which changes depending where on you view it from - I'm tempted to dip into Murnane, although from what you say it's more a full immersion or nothing.

Jim Murdoch said...

That's really it, Kay. To be fair you can read bits of Murnane as if they were short stories. I'm 100 pages into Barley Patch at the moment and it's easily divided into 'stories' but that's only a superficial reading.

Carrie read out the Sunday Times thing to me, well sort of "Blah de blah blah blah ... long list ... blah de blah ... Kay Sexton ... blah blah ... AS Byatt ... Alexei Sayle ..." but I got the idea. So congrats.

Unknown said...

Good grief--how does one get a DVD of "Words and Silk"?

Really wonderful to see such sustained attention given GM's work. I think he's one of the greatest writers working in the English language today. Thanks for this.


Dick said...

Ten minutes ago, just a name amongst many. Now an author whose work I shall have to pursue. Who needs Wikipedia when we have Jim?

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, Defamed, an Australian friend is sending me a copy as a present. I have to admit I’d be stuck myself otherwise. Maybe I’ll upload some clips in the future.

And, Dick, to be totally honest this is way too long for Wikipedia. I think someone slapped a ‘needs to be shortened’ tag on my entry for Krapp’s Last Tape. It depends on the topic. My Waiting for Godot entry is pretty humungous but that’s a hugely popular entry.

You read this in ten minutes, eh? Took me a week to write which is why only the one entry. I’m a third through Barley Patch just now and it’s actually an easier read than Inland. I don’t think this is simply me getting used to his style but knowing up front that he’s going to wander all over the place helps. In Barley Patch he doesn’t so much wander as digress; he’ll tell what is essentially a little story, an anecdote even and something in that telling will trigger off another idea which he’ll follow and suddenly you realise he’s going on about something else and you’ve hardly noticed the transition. At the moment I’m just trying to get through it. I’ll sit down and read it properly later.

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