Reading Gerald Murnane

Context N°23

Nicholas Birns

In one sense, Gerald Murnane is the most Australian of writers. Unlike most of his countrymen, who are inveterate travelers, instinctual cosmopolitans, Murnane has never left Australia. Indeed, he has largely confined himself to the Australian state of Victoria, visiting Tasmania once, New South Wales a few times, South Australia now and again, and rarely if ever witnessing “the far sunlight of Queensland” (as he says in his collection Landscape with Landscape). Like a good many Australians, Murnane is of Irish background and had a Roman Catholic upbringing. For many years Murnane lived a quiet suburban existence with his family, and has now retired to a small town in the west of Victoria. His greatest hobby is the characteristically Australian one of horse racing. Moreover, Murnane writes in a vein of Australian “realism” initiated by the garrulous anti-realism of the early twentieth-century novelist Joseph Furphy, whose vernacular erudition and love of having sport with his reader contribute to Murnane’s vision as much as does Patrick White’s high style and braiding of language and loss. If a writer like Peter Carey, with his inventiveness, verve, and prescience, is the outward face of Australian literature, Murnane is its inward face: contemplative, deeply humane, dedicated above all to craft.

But in other ways Murnane is the least Australian of writers. Homebody though he may be in real life, in his fiction he has traveled to Hungary and to Paraguay, to Romania and to the grasslands of South Dakota. He is an erudite writer who is massively well read though owing true debts only to a select body of peers: Proust, Emily Brontë, Hardy, Nabokov, Borges, Calvino, Halldor Laxness, and Gyula Illyés. Moreover, like many of these peers, the places mentioned in his fiction do not really correspond to reality, even though they sometimes have names we recognize. Repetition plays a key role in Murnane’s fiction, which is often very abstract and lacking the detailed descriptions and settings we have come to expect in not only traditional but much innovative fiction. In Murnane’s hand, a passage like this, which would be the beginning of a conventional novel:

On a certain afternoon in the early 1950s with a hot sun in a clear sky but with a cool breeze blowing from the near-by sea, a man aged about thirty years was riding on horseback towards a swampy area overgrown with tea-tree and with other sorts of dense scrub. The swampy area was near the centre of a low-lying island within sight of the mainland of south-eastern Victoria. (Barley Patch)

is here an elaborate decoy, just the sort of obvious narrative reward one is not going to get from anyone who, as Murnane likes to put it, would be the “chief character” in one of his novels. Murnane’s texts teach their reader to stifle routine narrative urges, to search harder and more exactingly along the paths of imagination. As David Musgrave notes, Murnane, though on the one hand richly creative, also asks of his readers a “renunciation of imagination,” even as Murnane is incontestably, in Musgrave’s words, “Australia’s most innovative writer of fiction.”

Gerald Murnane was born in 1939 in the Victorian suburb of Coburg—the resemblance to Proust’s beloved Cabourg is intriguing—just old enough to remember the war years and grow up during the 1950s. Murnane’s boyhood was passed in a fervently Catholic atmosphere, and Murnane grew up thinking he might be a priest. A loss of faith not dissimilar to James Joyce’s—later written about in Murnane’s novel A Lifetime on Clouds (1976), not dissimilar to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—brought him, after several uncertain years, to the literary life. The story “In Far Fields” from his collection Emerald Blue shows how uncertain his entry into the realm of high literature was, how ridiculously disconcerting he at times found it. Murnane’s first novel, Tamarisk Row (1974), gives first sighting of some of Murnane’s obsessions—horse-racing, images as gnomic clues to destinies, migration, the brief exaltation of a Christian hope that becomes impalpable, chimerical. Clement Killeaton is a third-person point-of-view character much resembling the young Murnane. In his next book, A Lifetime on Clouds, Murnane complicates this by having his similar protagonist, Adrian Sherd, veer off into fantasies: of America as a land of sexual allure and, conversely, of a priesthood at once a refuge from the chaos of sexuality and a way to strangely consecrate it. Repeatedly compared not only to Joyce’s novel of growing up in Dublin but to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, A Lifetime on Clouds also gestures toward the later work of both Joyce and Roth, by giving creativity—beyond the manifest, surface life—a privileged role in not only suturing the gaps in reality but voyaging beyond them into a distant field of the imagination. Both the conservatism of the ’50s and the new stirrings of the ’60s—always represented for Murnane by Jack Kerouac, whose works, especially On the Road, gain a strange new aura when seen through Murnane’s eyes—still continue to inform Murnane’s worldview. Even in his latest novel, Barley Patch (2009), Murnane returns to the period of his boyhood and youth in order to plumb memory, desire, and the mysteries of life that become more explicable, but no more masterable, with age. Unusually, Murnane is as interested in the surface indicator as he is the deep structure, especially in the names of people and places, which he lingers over, toys with, mulls. The Plains (1982) is defiantly abstract, clearly a fable about the very possibility of fable, a tribute to the impossible but irresistible task of finding a meaning beyond the visible. Murnane postulates a remote counter-Australia away from the known societies of the coasts, a place that is a kind of diorama of his own imagination where a young filmmaker quests for love and inclusion on the permanent cultural record in a realm that is utopian and gossamer. The theme of the absent woman, seen in Lifetime as a palpable object of desire, is transmogrified in this book into the paragon of an epistemological hope:

Then I want to bring to light the plain that she remembers—that shimmering land under a sky that she has never quite lost sight of. And I mean to see still other lands that cry out for their explorer—those plains that she recognizes when she gazes out from a veranda and sees anything but a familiar land.

The Plains is superbly successful on its own terms. What is interesting, though, is that Murnane’s subsequent works do not stay at this level of abstraction, but turn back inward to reality, much as Cézanne turns back to the object after Impressionism. This does not mean resuming the realism of the first two novels, but chronicling lived circumstances amid imaginary tableau. Inland (1988), perhaps Murnane’s greatest work, is filled with both displacement and pathos, of lost loves re-sought but never secured, of mirror-image collaborations as perilous as they are audacious, and of repeated geographical mantras that achieve both a Whitmanesque breadth and enjoy a modernist irony. This era is also the time when much of Murnane’s great short fiction is written, appearing in Landscape with Landscape (1985), Velvet Waters (1990), and Emerald Blue (1995). Ranging from meaty, ramifying novellas to taut parables, these experimental fictions reveal their narrators both weeping for the world and dismissing it as a mirage.

Murnane is fully aware of the non-objective tradition in which he writes. Yet his literary education was autodidactic in nature and did not coalescence until his late twenties. Part of the key to Murnane is that he was both a late bloomer and someone who, just at the moment he had begun to make his reputation in his late thirties, began to withdraw from the hum and buzz of the literary scene. Murnane was a revered teacher of writing at Deakin University. His former students, including Tim Richards, Christopher Cyrill, and Tom Cho, are among the major figures in the next generation of Australian writers. But Murnane never wrote with the mentality of an academic or an active legislator in the Republic of Letters. Murnane has never courted publicity, though certainly he has never engaged in any melodrama trying to avoid it. Because Murnane was in so many ways self-educated (he was not a literature major as an undergraduate, but, astonishingly, concentrated in Arabic), Murnane’s self-reference is rough-hewn, runs in its own authorial grain, is rife with eccentric quibbles and ramifications.

Many assumed Murnane had given up fiction with “The Interior of Gaaldine,” the last story in Emerald Blue, both because it trailed off into a series of concocted horse-racing details that seemed in its own inconspicuous way valedictory and because Murnane published no fiction for almost fifteen years afterward. One says “published” and not “written,” because Murnane is known to write long manuscripts that he does not choose to publish for personal reasons. Moreover, he has produced many letters, diaries, and accounts of his life and his preoccupations, which are not strictly speaking works of fiction, but to which he devotes much time as a part of his mental labor. Famously able to write in his living room even as his three sons, when young, bustled about in great commotion, Murnane is a born writer who has produced so much that what his readers can see is only the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps encouraged by the enthusiasm of his editor at Giramondo Publishing, the energetic Ivor Indyk, Murnane embarked on a new period of creativity in the twenty-first century. His selected essays, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, appeared in 2006. With their reflections on Proust, Kerouac, and the challenges of learning Hungarian, they brought Murnane’s vision to a far wider readership.

Why has Murnane spent much of his later adult life trying to learn Hungarian? Part of it is the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the impact that the refugees coming to Australia made on the seventeen-year-old Murnane. Part of it is the Magyar presence as a bit of Central Asia in Middle Europe, the sense of an external voice, the other within the same. Part of it is simply the need for a sacred language, sacred not in the sense of scriptural but in being secret.

Barley Patch is an intensely personal book, but also one rigorously engaged with the making of fiction. In the opening pages of the book, the narrator looks back on his experience as an adolescent, discovering a doll’s house in the second story of a relative’s house. This is evocative on a tangible level, but also carries symbolic connotations of a surplus of meaning, of meaning, as it were, having a second story, an additional layer not immediately explorable. Furthermore, the boyhood reading of the chief character, especially his reading of Josephine Tey’s detective thriller Brat Farrar, with its themes of mistaken identity, courtship, and horse-racing, relate to the narrative not just archival but experientially. Reading becomes experience, or, as Murnane often seems to indicate, the richest experience can be had only through reading, not just the immediate engagement with the text but the residue, the aftermath, of images that hover and abide. Barley Patch is also a dirge for the inaccessibility of a landscape never fully occupied. Murnane both cites and avoids his own name, describing a two-word sign posted by a landmark:

The second word is Bay. The first word is the surname of my paternal great-grandfather followed by the possessive apostrophe.

Your paternal great-grandfather is likely to bear the surname that is also yours, and indeed there is a real Murnane’s Bay in southwestern Victoria. Yet one must not believe Murnane himself is speaking to us. There is nothing that direct. It is only through the filter of a chief character that dialogue with the reader is negotiated. The Swedish critic Karin Hansson, one of an influential group of professors and translators who have argued for Murnane to win the Nobel Prize, has stated that “like Husserl and other phenomenologists he considers the study of the potentialities and functions of consciousness, mind, and memory as a primary task in his writing. His attention is directed towards cognitive processes rather than demonstrating the veracity of external conditions.” But the one theorist Murnane has ever overtly lauded is the far more hardscrabble American, Wayne C. Booth, whose The Rhetoric of Fiction is a text to which Murnane constantly refers. Booth’s idea of the “implied author,” the author the reader gets from the text—being different from both the more apparent “narrator” and the real-life “breathing author”—has been central to how Murnane understands his own work.

There is a temptation to compare Murnane with W. G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño, two writers who, like Murnane, were both dry and passionate, both writing out of their own historically delimited world but asking the ultimate questions. Murnane differs from these writers, though, in at least two respects. First, he is alive; he is fond of referring to himself as “the breathing author,” as per Booth’s theories. While Sebald and Bolaño accrued much of their truly global fame after their deaths, Murnane seems determined to do it while he is still with us. Secondly, at least part of the importance of Sebald and Bolaño had to do with politics. Murnane is not incapable of political thought—his story “Land Deal” is a searing depiction of the white settlement of Australia as a nightmare from which Aboriginal dreamers are determined to awake—but he is not primarily political. Wrongly cast by certain Australian critics as an aesthetic mandarin, Murnane is hardly that. He is indeed a proletarian sage, immersed in Australian daily life, admiring the mansions of the wealthy magnates depicted in The Plains but knowing he will never be anything more than an object of their patronage. Murnane is dedicated to fiction above all, to its imaginative manifestation as fable and gesture. But this dedication is not meant to be a mere foil to reality. The narrators of Murnane’s fictions are, indeed, powerless to do anything but follow the lead of the images that festoon their minds; their volition is contingent; they are led by their own fascinations. Creating art is less an exercise of will than an inadvertent grace.

Murnane is a very personal writer. Or, to put it another way, as Booth’s narratological theories would suggest—the implied author of Murnane’s texts is an intensely personal one. This makes the implied reader of these texts a highly personal one too. We put our own selves into Murnane’s work partially because their systemic awareness asks that we make a reciprocal investment tantamount to that which has been made by our authorial interlocutor. Thus, it is not a will o’ the wisp that critics have read Murnane so subjectively. Yet none of the established critical guides to Murnane, including the present writer, should be allowed to have the final word. Murnane is a writer to be experienced individually, as each reader embarks on their own journey in quest of, as the narrator of “Sipping the Essence” (Landscape With Landscape) put it, “something richly colored like Queensland that was not quite within my grasp.”

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