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30 January 2019

The navel-gazing fictions of Gerald Murnane

His strange, self-referential novels are  finally winning the 79-year-old Australian fame.

By Chris Power

Here are some extraordinary facts about the Australian writer Gerald Murnane: aged 79, he has never travelled in an aeroplane and has only left the state of Victoria a handful of times. The filing cabinets he calls his “Chronological Archive”, which will remain sealed until his death, include files titled “I decide that most books are crap”, “Peter Carey exposed at last”, and “10,000 anagrams of GERALD MURNANE”. Also in the archive: more than 1,000 pages of charts, diagrams, lists, and sketches detailing the owners, trainers and colours of thousands of horses, and the running of thousands of races, in the imaginary lands of New Eden and New Arcady. Ten years ago, after his wife died, he left Melbourne and moved to Goroke, population 300; in 2017 an academic seminar on Murnane’s work convened in the town’s golf club. In the nine books of fiction he has published since 1982, there is only one instance of direct speech and almost none of his characters are named. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature multiple times, but before last December had never won a major Australian literary prize, and of his 14 books only one has ever been published in the UK.

Until now, that is. This month sees And Other Stories’ publication of Murnane’s first novel, Tamarisk Row (1974), and Border Districts (2017), which he says is his last. This is the latest stage in the Murnane revival that began a decade ago when Australian indie publisher Giramondo reissued several of his books, after he had been shunned by an Australian literary scene that judged the books too obscure and the man too eccentric. Publication in the United States followed, and now, better late than never, in the UK.

Border Districts is a fitting finale given that it contains so many references to his previous work, including an opening line that is a variation on that of his novel The Plains – but then self-reference is one of his defining traits, because Murnane’s great subject is Gerald Murnane. “My fiction”, he has said, “is a report of the contents of my mind. I don’t try to convince my readers that my writing shows them the real world, whatever that is. My books are set in the landscapes of my mind.” Only “Land Deal” (1980), a Borgesian short story told from the viewpoint of Aboriginals negotiating with white settlers, falls outside this definition, and is the only one of Murnane’s stories that might be said to be about Australia in any serious way.

Murnane’s work divides into three main phases. In the 1970s he published two unusual BildungsromansTamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds (an expanded version of the latter will shortly appear in Australia as A Season on Earth). Both intermingle the fantasy lives and everyday reality of their protagonists. In Tamarisk Row, set in the late 1940s in the town of Bassett, nine-year-old Clement Killeaton builds miniature racecourses in his back garden, gets bullied at school, and tries to get girls to show him their privates. Meanwhile, his father gambles away the family’s money on horses.

Adrian Sherd, the protagonist of A Lifetime on Clouds, is 15 and as enslaved to his imagination as Clement, although his fantasies are about a different kind of riding (“Adrian is a prize masturbator,” as a Guardian reviewer put it in 1977). The book is essentially comic, although there is a nightmarish edge to the relentlessness of Adrian’s fantasies – indeed, there is a disquieting, furtive aspect to sex throughout Murnane’s fiction, which is full of characters who want lots but get barely any.

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Murnane’s 1980s output is more explicitly conceptual. Landscape with Landscape (1985) is a metafictional story cycle in which each story is written by the main character of the preceding one. Inland (1988) begins with a Hungarian landowner writing to the Calvin O Dahlberg Institute of Prairie Studies in South Dakota (the nod to Calvino is deliberate, and justified), then develops into an extraordinary meditation on writing and death.

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The book preceding these two, The Plains (1982), is Murnane’s best-known work. It describes an inverted Australia where the interior is the nation’s cultural heartland, and the coastal settlements merely its “sterile margins”. The main character is a film-maker, one of a host of artists who travel inland to petition wealthy landowners to become their patrons. Successful applicants receive all the time and equipment needed to produce their work. But although the book spans years, the film-maker never shoots a single foot of film. Abandoning his ambition of capturing the essence of the plains, the final scene shows him turning a camera to his eye, a resonant image given Murnane’s writing is so focused on himself, and so uninterested in – he would even say incapable of – inhabiting any other viewpoint.

When Murnane says his fiction is a report of the contents of his mind, he means it literally: his stories and books build outwards from a methodical cataloguing and interrogation of a group of particular images, such as grasslands stretching to the horizon, the play of light through stained glass, or the patterns made by the spines of shelved books, which in turn lead to associations that unlock additional memories, and so on. It’s like Proust, minus the party scenes.

Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds contain grandstanding long sentences and intricate set pieces. But Murnane’s prose became both simpler and more distinctive, particularly from the late-1980s onwards – methodical and repetitious, sometimes clinical, but in a way that can be hypnotic and powerful. Here, in the story “Stream System”, he describes a family bereavement:

My brother died when he was forty-three years old and I was forty-six. My brother never married. Many people came to my brother’s funeral, but none of these people had ever been a friend to my brother. I was certainly never a friend to my brother. On the day before my brother died I understood for the first time that no one had ever been a friend to my brother.

Is the “I” in the above passage Murnane? Yes and no. His chief characters (often referred to within stories as “the chief character of this story”) always have identical or very similar biographies to Murnane’s, but he sees the question of whether or not they are “him” as irrelevant. In a 1989 essay, he outlined his theory of “true fiction”:

When I speak or write about what I call true fiction, some people suppose that I think of the best fiction as a sort of confessional writing. I deny this. What I call true fiction is fiction written by men and women not to tell the stories of their lives but to describe the images in their minds (some of which may happen to be images of men and women who want to tell the truth about their lives).

For Murnane, texts written in this way, and additionally the thoughts and images they trigger in our mind as we read them, are completely true, whether the characters they describe exist in the real world or not.

Here is something else that’s true: if you played a Gerald Murnane drinking game and downed a stubby of beer every time he writes about Proust, Emily Brontë, Hardy, grasslands, horse racing, monasteries, masturbation, stained glass, birds or, indeed, stubbies of beer, you would soon be legless. His imagination is like Samuel Beckett’s in its obsessive return to a select group of themes and images, their resonance not diminishing but becoming deeper with each recurrence. In 1958, about to start a new project, Beckett wrote in a letter to the painter Avigdor Arikha that he would “try to tell one more time what it is to have been”. Murnane’s work has a similar intent – describing being – although it eschews the universality that Beckett’s non-specific settings convey; aside from Tamarisk Row, where the Victorian city of Bendigo becomes Bassett, and The Plains, which describes an alternative Australia, Murnane grounds his fiction in a real, googleable Melbourne and Victoria. Even when a story supposedly takes place in Paraguay (“The Battle of Acosta Nu”), or on the Hungarian Alföld (Inland), geography becomes unmoored, and we rapidly find ourselves back in the territory Murnane has rarely left. This has nothing to do with Australia itself and everything to do with Murnane; whichever direction his work strikes out in, it starts and ends with him. “[A] diagram of my mind,” he writes, “would resemble a vast and intricate map with images for its small towns and with feelings for the roads through the grassy countryside between the towns.” His fiction, and his essays for that matter, comprise sections of that map.

As its title suggests, Border Districts belongs on this map’s fringes, and as such isn’t for beginners. The interconnection between Murnane’s works can make reading him an addictive experience, because the more you read, the more puzzle pieces you acquire. Border Districts can stand alone, but it benefits from some knowledge of the body of work it is, apparently, concluding. Better to start with Tamarisk Row, and proceed chronologically.

Towards the conclusion of that book, Clement gets lost after running an errand for his father and decides to follow the creek that runs through Bassett. This new route unlocks the city, showing him a different side of familiar streets. As he walks, they blend with his imaginary land of Tamarisk Row, a merging of the actual and imaginary that will characterise all Murnane’s subsequent fiction. Clement’s journey anticipates Murnane’s: in the epilogue to an early version of “Stream System”, and later cut from the story, Murnane writes of his associative style that, “If anyone were to ask me today what method I use for writing my fiction… I would say that I write fiction by following the stream system.” In another story he quotes Jacques Derrida: “To write is to go in search.” From a boy following Bassett Creek to an old man patrolling the borderlands, Murnane’s books are expeditions that encompass a territory unlike any other. l

Chris Power is the author of “Mothers” (Faber & Faber)

Tamarisk Row
Gerald Murnane
And Other Stories, 291pp, £10

Border Districts
Gerald Murnane
And Other Stories, 160pp, £8.99