11/30/14

Germán Espinosa - It’s not every day you discover a literary masterpiece that pushes all the right buttons for you, which you enter like a parallel world to be inhabited and explored for several months, and which you are extremely loath to leave once the final page is turned. Such is Germán Espinosa’s incredibly dense, profoundly learned and wantonly baroque creation, a novela total




Germán Espinosa, La tejedora de coronas (The Weaver of Crowns)


It’s not every day you discover a literary masterpiece that pushes all the right buttons for you, which you enter like a parallel world to be inhabited and explored for several months, and which you are extremely loath to leave once the final page is turned. Such is Germán Espinosa’s incredibly dense, profoundly learned and wantonly baroque creation, a novela total whose breathtaking pre-Google erudition goes hand-in-hand  with awe-inspiring stylistic virtuosity. The Weaver of Crowns is the most outrageous omission in the lives of English language readers I have encountered so far. For my money, if there is a single Spanish language novel that absolutely has to be translated into English, it is hands down the magnum opus of the Colombian genius, unjustly dubbed “Gabo without Nobel”.  I was more impressed by Espinosa’s book than by anything I’ve read by Marquez, all the more regretting the fact that it has never taken its deserved place alongside the best of Latin American literature. The Weaver of Crowns belongs to the same pantheon as such recognized works as Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Roa Bastos’ I, the Supreme, Lezama Lima’s Paradiso, Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, and yes, One Hundred Years of Solitude penned by the über-famous compatriot of the regrettably more obscure Espinosa. The National Commission for UNESCO of Colombia  has singled out The Weaver of Crowns as one of the most significant literary works it would like to see translated. You can find the relevant information on the UNESCO portal. More than ten years have passed since the survey carried out by the Clearing House for Literary Translation, but, unfortunately, there isn’t even a hint at the possible English translation in the works. Those reading French, are way more lucky in this respect. But enough complaining. Time to cease this introductory jeremiad and get on with my review.
The first remarkable thing about this book is  the way it is written. If you are fond of long meandering  sentences of Lazslo Krazsnohorkai and W.G. Sebald, or if you have enjoyed reading Matthias Énard’s single-sentence lyrical exploration of war, The Weaver of Crowns is right up your alley. Each chapter of this novel consists of a an approximately 30 page long elaborate  sentence relating the trials and tribulations of Genoveva Alcocer, a Creole polymath who goes on to become a veritable embodiment of the Enlightenment. The whole book is a free-flowing monologue in which Genoveva tells the story of her life in a whimsically non-linear way, often abruptly jumping in space and time. In this narrative kaleidoscope, before our eyes flashes the grim and fascinating world of the 18th century Europe as well as that of the European colonies at the dawn of the radical changes in which the reason shored up the great discoveries  in science is slowly but surely ousting the dogmatic and intolerant heritage of the Middle Ages, most obviously epitomised by the Holy Inquisition. The novel packs a lot of power not only in terms of its baroque style and labyrinthine syntax, but because of the sheer amount of information it mercilessly pours onto the reader. The narrator makes learned digressions into various disciplines such as astronomy,  biology,  geography, navigation, medicine, theology, architecture, mythology and quite a few other subjects. The abundance of historical, literary and scientific references never seems to be mere name-dropping, though.  All these are presented as integral part of the cultural ambiance the exceptionally gifted protagonist has come to inhabit.
Born in the coastal city of  Cartagena (present-day Colombia), Genoveva is destined to leave her homeland for France in the company of two geographers who later prove to be members of the Masonic Lodge. When reaching Europe, Genoveva starts an impressive career of a scientist, adventurer and secret agent,  which impels her to visit different countries carrying out special assignments of the Lodge, like establishing its subsidiary in Spain or persuading George Washington to head resistance against the British colonial rule in America.  Not all her trips have a political agenda. For example, Genoveva travels to Lapland as a member of Maupertuis’ expedition whose goal is to measure a meridian arc near the North Pole. Being as insatiable for carnal  pleasures as for knowledge, Genoveva drifts from one lover to another, never settling on one particular man. One of the most significant affairs in her life is a fling with young poet François-Marie Arouet who comes to be known to the world under the pen name Voltaire. Actually, it is thanks to the rebellious philosopher and writer that she is introduced to the secret activities of Freemasons. Being an open-minded and inquisitive woman, Genoveva imbibes the revolutionary ideas of the leading proponents of the Enlightenment and, in her turn, tries to promote their views all the way to her native shores in the Caribbean. Genoveva is fascinated by all sorts of knowledge, be it politics, science, art or literature. No matter how dire her situation  is, this passion for learning never leaves her. Thus, while imprisoned in the formidable Bastille for taking part in  a mock Satanic ritual enacted to distract the attention of the Parisian police from the Lodge authorities meeting Emmanuel Swedenborg, she makes use of the decade-long incarceration to read the essential works of world literature . The following passage brilliantly characterises Genoveva’s capacity for learning, and will surely resonate with any devoted reader:
in German I read the Minnisingers, the Mestersingers, and von Haller, in Italian Dante and Petrarca, in Spanish my old favourites, romances de gesta, Manrique, San Juan de La Cruz, fray Luis, Garcilaso, Góngora and Quevedo, in French rather an extensive list of books, how to enumerate all of them? from the beautiful Roman de la rose, to Rutebeuf, Chretien de Troyes, Jaufré Rudel, Pierre de Ronsard, Charles d’Orléans, […] in English I became fascinated by the incomparable powers of a certain William Shakespeare […]
How can a simple girl from a far-away Spanish colony in the Indies become such a learned person? Genoveva partly owes her insatiable appetite for knowledge to the young self-taught astronomer Federico Goltar, her childhood friend with whom she predictably falls in love. The adolescent turns the enclosed balcony of his house into an astronomical observatory that he crams with measuring instruments, armillary spheres, maps and scientific treatises.  The young stargazer’s credo is encapsulated by the plate from Cellarius’ Harmonia Macrocosmica representing the planisphere of Copernicus which he nails to the wall.
Planisphaerium_Copernicanum
When Federico isn’t engrossed in studying maps, atlases or cosmograms, he peers into the sky through his telescope in search of new celestial bodies.  And indeed, one day he discovers a new planet which he names after his beloved. The green planet Genoveva, known to us as Uranus,  becomes a symbol of their youthful love which is not meant to consummate. Everything is changed by the single tragic event that turns the lives of Cartagena’s inhabitants upside down. The 1697 raid on the fortified city by the French Navy in conjunction with a motley crew of Tortuga buccaneers is the black hole in the fabric of Genoveva’s story around which the accretion disk of all the other events in her life will be always spinning. As a result of a secret deal between the governor of Cartagena and the French admiral Baron de Pointis, the wealthy merchant city is surrendered to the plundering troops of King Luis XIV. When the French fleet leaves Cartagena without sharing the spoils with the pirates, the buccaneers rampage through its streets in an orgy of pillage, murder and rape. Throughout her story Genoveva keeps returning to these horrifying events, each time coming closer to the bloodcurdling denouement alluded to earlier in the novel, but graphically described only near the end. When the Spanish rule is re-established in Cartagena, Genoveva, who has already lost friends and relatives during the raid, is faced with the ultimate loss: Federico is wrongly accused of treason and executed together with other similar victims, all of which is part of the scheme employed by governor Diego de Los Ríos to divert suspicion from his dirty dealings with the French aggressors. Federico’s dream of going to the educated France to continue his scientific research as well as to present the discovery of the green planet now can come true only vicariously – through Genoveva.
In the 14 years that elapse since the fateful raid until her encounter with the two geographers,  Pascal de Bignon and Guido Aldrovandi, Genoveva further educates herself in mathematics, geography and astronomy making use of the scientific treatises she inherits from  Federico. Thanks to this formidable  knowledge she is employed  by Aldrovandi and de Bignon, who take her on their geodesic mission in Quito. After that, she accompanies them to France. There, in the course of the busy years of serving the Lodge and following her scientific interests, Genoveva gets to know an impressive array of prominent historical figures: the already mentioned Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Jean D’Alembert, Charles Lemonnier (with whom she works as an assistant for five years), Henri de Boulainvilliers (who makes her horoscope), and Hyacinthe Rigaud (who paints her portrait). Not less important are her encounters with some fictitious characters. For example, a significant influence comes from Tabareau, an engineer with hermeticist predilections  who initiates Genoveva into the world of arcane symbols by showing her the carved figures on the tympanum of a small house in Rue aux Fèvres in Lisieux and on the facade of Hotel d’Escoville in Caen. The unsuspecting scientifically-minded Genoveva is overwhelmed by this mystical dimension encrypted into the scenes from New and Old Testament and Greek myths.
Tabareau dragged me again , this time to the Place Saint-Pierre, to the mansion called by the parishioners Hôtel du Grand Cheval erected by Nicolas de Valois, great-grandson of the Flers alchemist, on the facade of which he indicated with the same sibylline gesture an enormous relief of a horse floating in the air, with clouds beneath its front legs, and the name which was given to it was the horse with mane in the wind, on one of its thighs he deciphered the apocalyptic words Rex Regum et Dominus Dominantium, and below was a man carved from stone, with a sword in front of his eyes lacking light, in his right hand he was holding an iron rod, knightly figures that surrounded him were presided over by a solar angel, then he invited me to examine the torus of the portal, under the moulding a little horseman stood victoriously before a confused mass of human corpses and the carcasses of their mounts devoured by birds of prey, the horseman was apparently getting ready to face another horde of knights, and, as Tabareau told me, next to them were depicted the false prophet and the terrible polycephalous dragon which seemingly wished to enter the castle engulfed by flames, and according to the hurried and tangled explanations of my companion, this abundance of symbols was related  to the Verbum demissum of Trevisan and to the lost word of medieval architects and masons, as, by the same token, was the dragon on the tympanum situated beneath the peristyle before the staircase of the dome or, on the lateral facade, the beautiful statues of David and Judith, the latter bearing an inscription in French verse, recalling how the daughter of Merari, the Deuterocanonical heroine severs the inebriated head of Holofernes, the Assyrian warrior who besieged Betulia, coupa la teste fumeuse d’Holopherne qui l’heureuse Jerusalem eut defaict, and above these grand statues, the scenes of the rape of Europa and the liberation of Andromeda by Perseus, and also at the top of the skylight turret an allegory of Apollo Pythios, and, in a kind of small temple, the obscene statue of Priapus, the god with the erected phallus, which made all too obvious the heterogeneous spiritual proclivities or at least the excessive symbolism of those who built the house, although Tabareau did not seem to share this view, because, according to his passionate speech, we were clearly dealing with the heritage of the hermetic philosophers of Flers whose arcane symbols and formulas derived from magicians, Brahmans, and Cabalists, for the first time I saw myself surrounded by this world of arbitrary numbers, so distant from the rationalism of François-Marie […]
Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes at Hotel d'Escoville
Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes at Hotel d’Escoville
The Weaver of Crowns is a novel in which the mystical and the rational aspects are intertwined, and there is no way Genoveva can escape the realm of the eerie and inexplicable. Among the different genres Espinosa mines for his extensive fresco, the Gothic novel is not the least important.  The story of the sickly girl Marie whom the childless Genoveva adopts experiencing an alarming mixture of maternal and sexual feelings towards her, which will be eventually explained, is an exquisite tribute to the traditions of the best of macabre writing. Marie is an autistic sister of one of Genoveva’s lovers, the astronomer apprentice Jean Trencavel. She doesn’t speak a word of French, but communicates instead by uttering  fragments of troubadour songs in Occitan.  Genoveva takes the seriously ill girl to the thermal baths in Prussia. There she makes acquaintance of erudite aristocrat Baron von Glatz who invites her to stay at his castle, promising to find the best doctor to treat the girl’s disease, which is not named, but is, most probably, tuberculosis. Baron’s castle serves as a setting  for educated discussions on a range of topics from the nature of God to the possible existence of vampires. As in any good gothic story, there are dark secrets that Genoveva will eventually discover, and the shocking concluding scene that brought to my mind, when I first read it, the lurid imagery  of certain splatter video games.
Despite the countless dangers she is exposed to by her activities, Genoveva lives to be almost ninety, and even at that advanced age she continues to act as an emissary of the Lodge, spreading the ideas of the Enlightenment to the New World. It’s in this capacity that she returns to her native Cartagena where she organises a sort of club of amateur scientists and free thinkers, which she eventually hopes to convert into a fully fledged Masonic organisation. Encouraged by the news of José Celestino Mutis expounding the principles of the Copernican system in front of the viceroy of New Granada, Genoveva decides to write a short astronomical treatise which would elucidate the Newtonian theories of universal gravitation. The octogenarian heroine has a burning desire connect her homeland to the quickly growing network of universal ideas, but the question remains, is Cartagena ready for this? The Holy Office is still extremely powerful in Spain and its colonies, and,  in the evening of her life,  like many of her scientific role models before, it is the darkness of obscurantism fervently protected by the Inquisition which she is forced to face and endure to the bitter end. And that is the most tragic, but inevitably logical  consequence of Genoveva Alcocer’s enormous thirst for knowledge at the time of great upheavals and expectations  she is born into.
This is the longest review I have written so far for my blog, and by now you will have had a pretty clear idea why. The Weaver of Crowns is an unforgettable reading experience that enriches you, makes you look for additional information about the events depicted in it and explore further the topics touched upon within the impetuous torrent of the main character’s captivating narration. It is this time of the year when we see the appearance of the “best of” lists in newspapers, magazines and blogs. There is still time left until the end of 2014, but I am pretty much sure it is unlikely that I will read anything better than Germán Espinosa’s gem of a book this year.

If you can read Spanish, I highly recommend you this informative blog entirely dedicated to Germán Espinosa. - theuntranslated.wordpress.com/2014/11/29/the-weaver-of-crowns-la-tejedora-de-coronas-by-german-espinosa/

Gerald Murnane - Murnane, a genius, is a worthy heir to Beckett. Murnane wrote in another novel, “One of the first things I discovered about the world was that I seemed shut out of the best part of it”, and his fiction has been a relentless quest to reveal that “best part”

A Million Windows, by Gerald Murnane.

































Gerald Murnane, A Million Windows, Giramondo, 2014.

read it at Google Books
 
A publisher many years ago said that Gerald Murnane was a Proust who had never left Combray. Both parts of this statement remain true some 30 years after Murnane started publishing; he is a writer of the first rank, a writer that critics such as Frank Kermode and Northrop Frye, the most eminent of people around, were dazzled by at a glimpse, and yet any given work by him has a greater resemblance to any other such work than is usual in a writer of such marked distinction.
Murnane is constantly revisiting, with endless variegations and minute tonal shifts and dislocations and re-emergences of patterning, the apparent tiny variations of his obsessive compass: woman, landscape, grasslands.
It is as if the mind knew no other music than the topography of its own backyard, as if it could only articulate through particular words, all but lost to collective memory unless those memories abide in the endless canonical hours of Murnane's monk-like fiction, the ambient light and the endless declensions of the soul's yearning.
And yet no living Australian writer, not even Les Murray, has higher claims to permanence or a richer sense of distinction.
Visual artists such as Bill Henson flock to Murnane, I suspect because they recognise the relentless abstractionism and the explicit preoccupation with form – Murnane's is a fiction forever talking about writing fiction – as an absolutely humble homage to the grandeur of art and the extraordinary difficulty, as well as the radiance, that comes from trying.
The art critic Norbert Loeffler said once, of Peter Booth's painting: ‘‘Look at what this man can do with his pygmy vocabulary!’’ And Murnane – a little like the great American poet Wallace Stevens – is intent on the thousand shades of linguistic protection with which someone might look at the fire that comes out of the sun and then look into the heart of it.
That last phrase echoes a poem not by Stevens but by Peter Porter, an opposite writer to Murnane with his easy talkiness and his endless extroverted erudition but one with a comparable formal intensity and desperation of purpose.
Some of the greatest Porter poems come out of his wife dying tragically. The death of Murnane's wife, Catherine, a few years ago after a long illness has led to the fiction maker's shift from Macleod in Melbourne's outer suburbs to the town of Goroke in the Wimmera.
His new book, A Million Windows, is nothing if not like his old ones. Gerald Murnane begins with Tamarisk Row in 1974 with a book of small-town life that is at the same time haunted and then dwarfed by a young boy's preoccupation with colours and icons and racehorses. His second, A Lifetime on Clouds, is a nearly comic novel, full of great gulfs of unstable poignancy, about an imaginary woman, a wet dream, hilarious and hysterical, but with a sense (barely admitted) of the tears in things. It is in 1982 with The Plains that Murnane seems to meet his destiny by discovering – the way someone might discover a desolation or a delusion – the way he can make art out of the preoccupation with art.
For Murnane it's all a matter of ‘‘true fiction’’, an enigmatic phrase analogous to something such as ‘‘authentic poetry’’ or perhaps to what Pound meant when he said, ‘‘The sincerity is in the technique’’.
If you want the supreme triumph of Murnane's method read Inland (1988), which he has admitted is the God-given book, a work that dazzles the mind with its grandeur and touches the heart with a great wave of feeling and brings to the point of maximum reality the grave and soulful preoccupations that run through every bit of fiction Murnane has ever written.
In A Million Windows these preoccupations are presented and represented with great poise and power in a way that might easily seem schematic, but nothing is ever quite what it seems in this writer's fiction.
We hear of a house of fiction in which a great catalogue and cavalcade of writers (analogous to the various characters inhabiting a film by a famous filmmaker, recapitulating his previous personae) take up shelter and yabber or are reported as yabbering about the nature of fiction. We learn of a writer who died drunk in a country town and who sounds like the great gorgeous dandy of language and abuse, Hal Porter, and the fact that he (if he is the nameless source) said that in his childhood the view from his balcony – that sounds like the cast-iron one in Bellair Street, Kensington, immortalised in memoir – showed the sun-touched windows of a million houses like so many gleaming golden drops of oil.
That's one recurring item for meditation or occasion for epiphany, honoured or delayed, in what is in a sustained dithyrambic way, a long (fictional) meditation on the nature of fiction in something like the way T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets could be said to be a meditation on the nature of poetry.
In practice, with A Million Windows, Murnane is playing something like the same trick Eliot did in his suite of poems. He is enunciating truths about fiction that partake of the paradox of the Cretan liar, because this book, forever talking about books – and attempting to tell ‘‘the truth’’ about them – is moving with its own sense of mystery and undisclosed purpose through a wilderness of symbols of which its elements – its invocation of Henry James, say, as a hero of fiction, always the protagonist of his own sentences – both is and isn't a sleight of hand.
In the long distance of A Million Windows, there is a lonesome, shy, inarticulate male child (to call him a boy would be too temporally limiting) pining for dark-haired women, feeling serenity only at the prospect of flat land and grass, believing with the fullest possible sense of vocation – the religious one that sends people to seminaries and makes them believe in eternity and therefore the nullity of time – in the power of words, arranged according to the truth of faith, into a pattern, where rhythm and beauty and truth are one.
Is it a fiction? It is, Murnane seems to whisper, the necessary fiction on which the world of the imagination, which is the only world we have, is built.
Such is the world we have. Such is the world to come. Buy this book and read it like a bible. Never mind your fury, never mind your boredom. - Peter Craven

Gerald Murnane’s A Million Windows takes both its title and epigraph from the preface of the 1908 New York edition of The Portrait of a Lady, in which Henry James states: 
The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.
Murnane’s novel materially appropriates James’s concept: the narrator resides with many other authors in one wing of an enormous mansion that he refers to as the ‘House of Fiction’, where they write, share stories, reflect on the practice of writing, and take part in elaborate rituals based on James’s own fiction. But in rendering the figurative House of Fiction as a literal setting, the novel obscures its own fraught relationship to James’s metaphor, which A Million Windows revises in subtle but important ways.
James employs his ‘House of Fiction’ metaphor to illustrate the complicated relationship between a novel’s subject matter, its literary form, and the psychological temperament of its author. What the author glimpses through the windows of the house of fiction comprises the novel’s subject, while the shape of the window itself – ‘the pierced aperture, either broad or balconied or slit-like and low-browed’ – is its ‘literary form’. But in arguing that form and content are ‘as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher’, James elevates the disposition of the author over any particular quality of the text. The work of fiction is defined by the writer’s individual consciousness: ‘Tell me what the artist is,’ James asserts, ‘and I will tell you of what he has been conscious.’ It is precisely this direct connection between authorial consciousness and fiction that A Million Windows scrutinises.
A Million Windows might appear to enact James’s metaphor. Lacking a discrete subject or plot, the novel’s various narratives, digressions and remembrances cohere through the singular voice of the narrator, who gives shape and form to these fragments of lived experience and readerly reflection. In the novel’s slow agglomeration of meaning, which coalesces around unexpected resonances between events, memories and allusions, A Million Windows’ organising principle – if, indeed, it has one – would appear to be located within the individual consciousness and experience of its author. Readers are given access to private details of the author’s life, which generates both intimacy and claustrophobia. Much of A Million Windows, like Murnane’s other fiction, operates in a seemingly confessional mode: the narrator at various points describes his problems with drinking, aspects of his troubled upbringing, several instances of ‘what was mostly called in those years a nervous breakdown’, two encounters that appear to have been extramarital affairs, and many other deeply personal and often traumatic experiences.
But A Million Windows’ first sentence undermines the relationship between author, form and content in James’s metaphor: 
The single holland blind in his room was still drawn down in late afternoon, although he would have got out of his bed and would have washed and dressed at first light.
This innocuous holland blind is a barrier that, like Murnane’s House of Fiction itself, is both figurative and literal. For James, the work of art cannot be separated from the consciousness of the author (even if it is mediated by literary form and subject matter); for Murnane, the author is always remote and inaccessible, and the work of fiction is a veil, rather than a prismatic sublimation of the writerly ego. Any trace of authorial consciousness – or the ‘breathing author’, to use Murnane’s term – is no more than the attenuated glow of sunlight at the edges of a drawn curtain.
The appearance of this seemingly incidental holland blind signals that Murnane has appropriated James’s metaphor as his own. Indeed, large manor houses have been a recurrent trope throughout Murnane’s fiction, figuring prominently in almost all of his books. Murnane has even previously employed the conceit of a large manor house filled with writers in his short story ‘Stone Quarry’ from Velvet Waters (1990), which imagines the goings-on at a writers’ retreat called Waldo (a punning allusion both to the famous artists’ retreat Yaddo and to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of self-reliance) where the writers are not allowed to speak or communicate with each other in any way. In this sense, Murnane’s appropriation of James’s House of Fiction is also a form of self-quotation. Such self-reference becomes an essential part of A Million Windows, since much of the novel constitutes more or less explicit revisions of episodes from Murnane’s earlier works.
Here Murnane’s procedure recalls Giorgio Agamben’s suggestion (which, appropriately, quotes Walter Benjamin) that the 
particular power of quotations arises . . . not from their ability to transmit that past and allow the reader to relive it but, on the contrary, from their capacity to ‘make a clean sweep, to expel from the context, to destroy’.
A Million Windows always appropriates its source texts to new ends, and the novel’s use of quotation is frequently violent and coercive, rather than a simple matter of reference.
This is important because A Million Windows is a novel that is cobbled together from various references and quotations, but its allusions always move in at least two directions at once. They send the reader outside the text to works by other authors, while also recalling Murnane’s own body of work. A Million Windows’ opening section, for example, goes on to describe the author behind the holland blind writing down a ‘remembered version of a quotation’ written by a ‘male person from an earlier century’ whose name he ‘cannot recall’, which reads: ‘All our troubles arise from our being unwilling to keep to our room.’
While the quotation refers to an unnamed outside source, it also recalls the various references to solitary writers, usually seated near or close to windows, throughout Murnane’s writing. In Landscape with Landscape (1985), for example, the narrator imagines the nineteenth century Italian writer Giacomo Leopardi ‘imprisoned in his parents house’ and ‘sitting at his desk in deep shadow but in sight of a distant rectangle of white sunlight that was all he saw all day of some far-ranging view of Italian hills’. In Velvet Waters, Murnane even provides a catalogue of ‘writers whose way of life was more or less solitary’, including ‘Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Giacomo Leopardi, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Michel de Ghelderode, A. E. Housman, Thomas Merton, Gerald Basil Edwards, C. W. Killeaton’. The last author is the protagonist of Murnane’s first published novel, Tamarisk Row (1974).
External reference is also internal reference, which operates within a network of accumulated meaning across Murnane’s fiction that is arguably more significant than the provenance of the quotation. Whatever its origin, the quotation – implicitly associated with Murnane’s pantheon of solitary writers – seems to recall Proust in his cork-lined room, or Kafka’s famous dictum that 
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
And yet the actual quotation is a gloss on Blaise Pascal’s statement, written hundreds of years before any of those solitary writers were alive: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ It is through the omission of its author that the quotation may be placed it in an entirely different context, thereby altering its significance.
A Million Windows obsessively returns to questions about the relationship between fiction and the world, between subject matter and literary form, and between readers and authors. It reflects on these matters at greater length than Murnane’s previous works, but they are hardly new considerations in his writing. In fact, this novel revises ideas first articulated in the ‘essay’ (Murnane has noted that there is no substantive difference between those works he has called either essays or fiction) from Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs (2005) entitled ‘The Breathing Author’. In both texts, Murnane argues for a concept of authorship that is deeply indebted to the literary critic and rhetorician Wayne C. Booth, who argued that the actual human who produces literary works is ‘immeasurably complex and largely unknown, even to those who are most intimate’.
Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961; revised 1983) is the unnamed book ‘almost wholly given over to a study of point-of-view in fiction’ written by ‘a professor in an American university’ that the narrator of A Million Windows claims to have read closely in the first edition and then read again ‘nearly ten years later’ in ‘the revised and expanded second edition’. For those keeping score, the other unnamed scholarly work of ‘narratology’ – which the narrator finds confusing, despite its inclusion of ‘several charts or diagrams’ that illustrate ‘the many possible kinds of fictional narration’ – is Franz K. Stanzel’s A Theory of Narrative (1984). Murnane, following Booth, contrasts the ‘breathing author’ with what is called the ‘implied author’ – a concept Murnane has employed in his fiction for several decades now to describe his narrators, who resemble, but are nonetheless ontologically and narratologically distinct from the flesh-and-blood-author called Gerald Murnane.
Much of Murnane’s fiction, at least since Landscape with Landscape (1985), has examined this gap, or fissure, between the breathing author and the implied author, creatively exploiting their non-identical similitude. This focus on authorship is accompanied by extensive reflection on the cognitive process of reading itself, most notably in Murnane’s previous work, A History of Books (2012). In considering such issues, Murnane’s fiction over the last thirty years has examined how textual meaning (if that is the right word, since the narrator of A Million Windows states that ‘What others might have called meaning he called connectedness’) is transferred from the breathing author into the fictional text by the implied author and then, ideally, into the minds of those that Murnane terms ‘discerning readers’.
His point is not to delineate a phenomenology of reading, but rather to demonstrate the almost infinite complexity of an undertaking that is rarely viewed critically. As Murnane says repeatedly across his works, he has no theory of the mind and remains deeply suspicious of systematic accounts of cognition, whether philosophical or psychological. Instead, his oblique examination of reading recalls Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of ‘estrangement’: it seeks to demonstrate the complexity and the oddity of a reading process that is more or less taken for granted.
Murnane is thus a writer whose subject matter is writing and reading, but his interests are altogether different from the various postmodern practitioners of metafiction –  such as John Barth, John Fowles, Italo Calvino, B. S. Johnson and Robert Coover, – to whom he has frequently been compared. The narrator of A Million Windows explicitly denies any connection with such writing, saying ‘I can recall today no instance of my admiring some or another work of self-referential fiction, much less of my trying to write such a work.’ He goes on describe feeling ‘repelled’ by the ‘more extreme examples’ of this writing, in which narrators would ‘pause in their reporting’ as if ‘unable to decide which of several possible courses of events should follow from that point’. The narrator argues that authors of such novels incorrectly presume fictional characters are ‘of the same order’ as real people who ‘live out their lives’ and can be observed ‘in the way that the makers of film observe their characters’. The narrator instead argues that the fictional world that characters inhabit is ‘somewhere vast and vague’ that is ‘nowhere to be seen’ and thus is entirely unlike ‘the visible world’ in which readers and authors exist. For Murnane, metafiction fails because it equates two entities – the fictional and the actual – that are incomparable. ‘Any writer claiming otherwise,’ the narrator states, could never ‘be anything but a fool’.
This critique of self-referential fiction illustrates that Murnane’s own use of self-reflexivity is motivated, not by escapist aestheticism, but by more practical concerns. As the narrator of A Million Windows argues, one of the chief concerns of his writing is to ‘prevent’ readers from ‘apprehending my subject-matter in the way that a viewer . . . apprehends the subject-matter of a film’, such that fiction and reality would appear to be equated. Murnane highlights the otherness of fiction, employing what he calls ‘considered narration’ – a technique that requires a ‘strong narrator’ who, instead of hiding ‘behind his or her subject matter as the author of a filmscript’, openly selects and interprets the subject-matter of the fictional work itself. Murnane does not want to create fiction that simply simulates a possible (but non-existent) reality; rather, he desires to produce a work of ‘true fiction’ that reports ‘what no one but the narrator has seen or heard in the invisible setting where all fiction takes place’.
As the narrator of A Million Windows repeatedly reaffirms, the most important compositional principle in Murnane’s work is a genuine and thoroughgoing respect for the space of fiction as something radically different from everyday reality. It is this conviction, for example, that motivates the narrator’s critical dismissal of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) – although the book is, of course, never referred to by name – on the grounds that 
each of the monologues, as I call them, was made up of the same unrelenting prose. Authors of fiction purporting to come from a medley of voices are seldom skillful enough to compose a distinctive prose for each supposed speaker.
Metafictional authors fail because they presume that fictional characters are like real people; Marquez’s work fails because it does not give adequate specificity and agency to the various voices occupying the novel, which is thereby reduced to a simple reflection of the authorial ego. Both approaches, according to Murnane’s narrator, do not sufficiently respect the alterity of the space of fiction.
On similar grounds, the narrator entirely rejects the use of dialogue as a ‘trick’ that writers of fiction should never employ. The narrator’s prohibition stems from the belief that ‘dialogue . . . readily persuades the undiscerning reader that the purpose of fiction is to provide the nearest possible equivalents of experiences obtainable in this, the visible world where books are written and read’. Dialogue threatens to flatten out the space of literature by making it conform to the rules of everyday reality, so it must be scrupulously avoided.
A Million Windows is a work of fiction, but it is also an aesthetic manifesto and a reflection on Murnane’s artistic method. And this explication of the rationale behind Murnane’s aesthetic choices necessarily affects the way that we understand his fiction. What A Million Windows clarifies is not simply that there is a method to Murnane’s madness, but rather that Murnane’s unswerving devotion to a series of compositional principles is responsible for the unique texture of his work. His fiction – while it may lack more traditional plot structures – is a product of an alternate but rigorous set of procedures, rather than simply being ‘experimental’ or speculative in a banal sense. The narrator indirectly asserts this by referring (with no small irony) to the novel’s original ‘plan’ in explicit detail:
When I first drew up the plan for this work of fiction, I intended this, the nineteenth of thirty-four sections, to comprise an argument in favour of reliable narrators as against unreliable narrators or absent narrators.
Murnane has implicitly affirmed the systematic nature of his writing elsewhere, such as when the narrator of ‘The Breathing Author’ says: 
I have been described by my wife and by several friends as the most organized person they have ever known, and I admit to a love of order and of devising systems for storing and retrieving things.
Despite appearances, A Million Windows, like Murnane’s other novels, reflects this love of both system and archive, which manifests as a larger desire for a sense of order and meaning among the diverse moments of lived experience.
Although A Million Windows’ allusion to Henry James’s New York preface to Portrait of a Lady is made explicit in the novel’s title and epigraph, it is perhaps another of James’s works that exerts the most profound influence on Murnane’s novel. There are hints throughout A Million Windows that point to this other text. The most explicit occurs when the narrator expresses a wish to attain a very specific kind of aesthetic effect: 
I have wanted, for almost as long as I have been a writer of fiction, to secure for myself a vantage-point from which each of the events reported in a work of fiction such as this present work, and each of the personages mentioned in the work, might seem, at one and the same time, a unique and inimitable entity impossible to define or classify but also a mere detail in an intricate scheme or design.
Murnane articulates here the desire to acquire a perspective or ‘vantage-point’ that will enable him to maintain the particularity of the various events and characters within the work of fiction, while simultaneously entirely resolving these particularities within an overarching plan or pattern. For Murnane’s narrator, this synthesis would function as something like the ideal or absolute horizon of fiction. Fiction, because it is not subject to the rules and constraints imposed by logic, provides a unique form that can bridge the insurmountable gap between the particular and the general.
While Murnane’s narrator’s idea draws on a rich vein of aesthetic ideas that can be traced back to German Romantic theories of the novel – compare Schlegel’s famous dictum that any ‘theory of the novel would have to be itself a novel’ – I experienced a sort of déjà vu in reading the above passage that I could not account for until, entirely by chance, I happened to reread Pascale Casanova’s essay ‘Literature as World’,  which contains the following account of the central metaphor in Henry James’s story ‘The Figure in the Carpet’: 
In his story, ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ . . . Henry James deploys the beautiful metaphor of the Persian rug. Viewed casually or too close up, this appears an indecipherable tangle of arbitrary shapes and colours; but from the right angle, the carpet will suddenly present the attentive observer with ‘the one right combination’ of ‘superb intricacy’ – an ordered set of motifs which can only be understood in relation to each other, and which only become visible when perceived in their totality, in their reciprocal dependence and mutual interaction. Only when the carpet is seen as a configuration . . . ordering the shapes and colours can its regularities, variations, repetitions be understood; both its coherence and its internal relationships. Each figure can be grasped only in terms of the position it occupies within the whole, and its interconnections with all the others.
My suspicion is that the desire articulated by Murnane’s narrator to resolve the particular and the general within his fiction is intended precisely as an oblique reference to the metaphor of the ‘Figure in the Carpet’. The link is never explicitly made (as I have already noted, Murnane is fond of withholding the names of sources), but I think there are several circumstantial details which support the notion that James’s metaphor of the Persian rug is every bit as influential for A Million Windows as the House of Fiction.
First of all, there is the striking correlation between the desire expressed by Murnane’s narrator and James’s metaphor. In both, elements which appear as a series of ‘unique and inimitable’ entities are subsequently revealed as the ‘superb intricacy’ of a larger design that can be seen to unite them when viewed from the right perspective. Given the specificity of both notions, as well as A Million Windows’ explicit debts to James, it is very difficult to believe that the correspondence with ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ here is accidental.
The unstated connection between the two works becomes clearer when one considers the subject-matter of ‘The Figure in the Carpet’. The story is narrated by a book reviewer who publishes what he considers to be an excellent analysis of the most recent work by the novelist Hugh Vereker. But when the narrator subsequently encounters him at a party, Vereker notes that the review – like all reviews of his work – has failed to perceive the 
idea in my work without which I wouldn’t have given a straw for the whole job . . . It stretches . . . from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it. So it’s naturally the thing for the critic to look for.
The search for this hidden ‘idea’ within Vereker’s books, which elsewhere he terms his ‘exquisite scheme’, becomes the overriding passion of several characters in the story. While two of the searchers are initiated into Vereker’s secret, both die without revealing the pattern to the narrator.
In other words, James’s story is intimately concerned with the notion of authorial intention and more specifically the way in which authorial intention might be either withheld or kept remote from readers. This idea resonates with the irresolvable gap between ‘the discerning reader’ and ‘the breathing author’ that A Million Windows obsessively explores. Again, given the novel’s repeated invocation of James, the overlap here seems to be far from coincidental. I suspect that A Million Windows refers to ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ obliquely rather than explicitly because this ‘secret’ invocation is the only way to keep faith with the effect of James’s original. In going unnamed, James’s story functions as a material absence within Murnane’s text, which is only appropriate for a story that rehearses exactly this material absence of authorial intention; ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ becomes the secret or hidden idea within A Million Windows, much like Vereker’s secret ‘exquisite pattern’ within ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ itself.
That Murnane’s novel might contain such a ‘secret’ allusion is hardly surprising. His works have often referred to various forms of secret knowledge, and the narrators of his novels frequently articulate a desire to share some unnamed secret with one or a series of different female characters. In a recent issue of the journal Music and Literature, Murnane noted that, within the many filing cabinets that (somewhat infamously) constitute his writerly archives, there exists a folder full of ‘messages written . . . to an imaginary future reader’, which is entitled Titkos Dolgok, a Hungarian phrase meaning ‘secret matters’. Not only does this testify to Murnane’s unusual desire to continue shaping his reception posthumously, it also emphasises yet again the importance of omission – especially the withholding of essential, contextualising information – as a formal and rhetorical strategy within Murnane’s writing.
The importance of such secrets is reaffirmed by the ending of A Million Windows, which – perhaps surprisingly, given the self-reflexive and discursive nature of the book – concludes with the narrator (who, let us recall, resembles but is emphatically not the same as the real Gerald Murnane) revealing the details of a traumatic familial experience. At the age of 69, the narrator discovers a deeply unsettling secret about his mother that revises everything he knew about his childhood. In what appears to be a clear example of life imitating art, the secret divulged at the climax of A Million Windows reveals the previously obscured ‘figure in the carpet’ within the narrator’s own life, which can only be perceived from the perspective offered by this revelation. In this gesture, James’s Persian rug metaphor is appropriated in the same way that the ‘House of Fiction’ metaphor was.
In A Million Windows, the ‘figure in the carpet’ – that personal obsession which motivates the author and provides the pattern that unites his seemingly disparate works of fiction – is obscured not only from the reader, but also from the novelist himself, who can uncover the thread of this pattern only through the process of writing and its slow accrual of unexpected connections: ‘If you write about something for long enough, you will find that it is connected to everything else.’
In this sense, A Million Windows does not simply call into question – as so many have done before – the possibility of excavating authorial intention from a text. It suggests, or at least seems to suggest, that authorial intention is actually created through the writing and production of the text itself. More importantly, as the novel’s revision of material from Murnane’s earlier novels suggests, intention itself may be generated retrospectively, as ideas, characters and scenes are placed in new contexts that enable them to derive entirely new meanings. If A Million Windows is, as it appears to be, a late reflection on the artist’s own method, it is also an acknowledgment of the necessarily contingent nature of that method, the products of which can never be anything but a surprise, even to their own author. - Emmett Stinson


Describing Herbert Read’s English Prose Style, Gerald Murnane once wrote:
The contour of our thought is a magical phrase for me. It has helped me in times of trouble in the way that phrases from the Bible or Karl Marx probably help other people.
This approach is at the heart of his newest work of “true fiction,” A Million Windows, published earlier this year. Murnane’s eleventh book, it follows on with directions of thought explored continually in his life’s work—most recently in 2009’s The Plains, but going back as far as 1974’s Tamarisk Row. Murnane contends that the mind is properly understood as a space, that reality can be perceived in terms of a distinction between the “visible” and the “invisible” world, that time is more like a map than a linear progression of events, and that it is imperative that a work of fiction should never pretend to be anything other than a work of fiction. A Million Windows dwells on these ideas, and on Murnane’s usual fixations: imagery, women, and horseracing. But it’s also about reluctance, trust, and concealed pain.
If you aren’t familiar with Murnane, you’re far from alone. Although he’s won numerous awards, and received much attention from writers and academics like Teju Cole, J.M. Coetzee, Northop Frye, Frank Kermode, Imre Salusinszky, and Kevin Brophy, he doesn’t have a large readership. What’s more, he intends to be mysterious. To borrow his phrase, he has structured A Million Windows—as well as a great deal of his public presence—on “the withholding of essential information.” Without very much effort, you can find biographical information. He was born in Coburg in 1949 and he has spent nearly all of his life in Victoria. He has never travelled by aeroplane. He married Catherine Lancaster in 1966 and had three sons, and lived in Macleod until 2009, when he moved to Goroke, in north-west Victoria. He appeared in the 1989 documentary Words and Silk. And yet these details seem to reveal almost nothing about him. In a brief interview for the ABC’s The Writer’s Room, he shows the camera his violin, and comments: “I play it quite often, but only when no-one can hear me, so I won’t be doing a demonstration for you.”
A Million Windows is demanding to read, and slow. Its dynamics of intimacy and distancing can be frustrating, and at the beginning it doesn’t offer much goodwill, at least as that word is usually understood. It provokes you to question whether you are a “discerning” or an “undiscerning” reader, and in the early sections it seems to anticipate the reader’s prejudices and to reprimand them.  Because Murnane’s narrators disdain film, theatre and (worst of all!) fiction that pretends to be film or theatre, A Million Windows avoids scenic form. With one exception, it contains no dialogue apart from that implied to exist between writer and reader. It deals more in images and patterns than in plot. As it elaborates on its central image, a distant house inhabited by many narrators, it becomes increasing challenging and complex. But nevertheless it’s captivating, and in the end it’s rewarding. I don’t trust my own discernment enough to provide a confident evaluation. But if you’re willing to put in the time parsing paragraph-long sentences, and paging back to earlier sections when prompted, then I recommend it. - Liam Harper


It’s often said of Gerald Murnane that his mature period began with the publication of The Plains in 1982. What followed were four volumes filled with metafictional introspection and a sustained preoccupation with the act of writing that culminated in Emerald Blue in 1995. When Barley Patch appeared in 2009, ending a run of some fourteen years during which Murnane published no fiction at all, it swerved Murnane’s metafictional focus from the present tense to the present perfect: from the act of writing, here and now, to the fact of having written much over many years. In doing so, Barley Patch announced the arrival of Murnane’s late period, a period that continued through A History of Books in 2012 and continues now, this month, in A Million Windows. Of the three volumes that comprise this loose trilogy of self-reflective fictions, A Million Windows is the most lucidly written, the most conceptually successful, and the most emotionally invested. It is also what one reader described to me as “Murnane to the power of Murnane,” making it by far the least likely of all of Murnane’s books to appeal to readers not already familiar with him.
A Million Windows takes its title from Henry James’ declaration that “[t]he house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” and the image that dominates the book is “a house of two or, perhaps, three storeys” whose occupants are continually gazing out of its windows at the grasslands that surround it. Readers of Barley Patch and A History of Books will not be surprised to learn that these occupants are, once again, the “personages” and “image-persons” who Murnane’s eloquent yet formal narrator remains reluctant to identify as characters, but what is surprising here is who these people are and where they happen to come from. Although the origins of its title may lie in the work of Henry James, A Million Windows takes the image of the capacious house from an article about a Swedish film director who, “late in his career,” directed “a film set in a castle many a room of which was occupied by one or another chief character from one or another of the many films directed by the Swede in earlier years,” meaning that the occupants of the house are the chief characters and narrators of some of Murnane’s earlier publications. Most recognisable among them are the narrator of ‘Stone Quarry,’ arguably the finest of Murnane’s short fictions, as well as middle-aged or elderly versions of Clement Killeaton and Adrian Sherd — the protagonist of Murnane’s début, Tamarisk Row, published in 1974, and the protagonist of A Lifetime on Clouds, published in 1976. But while the appearances of these characters may make A Million Windows look like merely the most recent iteration of what Peter Craven calls Murnane’s “revisiting, with endless variegations and minute tonal shifts and dislocations and re-emergences of patterning, the apparent tiny variations of his obsessive compass,” Murnane incorporates them into the book in ways that have repercussions for re-readings of the books in which they first appeared.
As they congregate to debate the metaphysics of literature in much the same way that the plainsmen of The Plains collectively articulate the meaning of a barren landscape, the occupants of Murnane’s house give voice to various ways of approaching the activity of writing fiction. Their discussions invariably involve the close analysis of the most simple and most common elements of fiction — characterisation, point-of-view, dialogue, plot, theme, and so on — and they usually conclude with a consideration of the efficacy of a given element with reference to a particular work of fiction that they deem either successful or unreadable. Over time, then, they reach a sort of consensus on the essential elements of a work of fiction, the most important of which is what Murnane’s narrator calls a “narrative presence,” “the personage seemingly responsible for the existence of the text [who is also] seemingly approachable by way of the text or seemingly revealed through the text and [who] seem[s] to have written the text in order to impart what could never have been imparted by any other means than the writing of a fictional text.” Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum and the work of the Latin American magical realists are thus designated as fiction written in bad faith, “mere text[s that are] the seeming work of no recognisable personage,” whereas Henry James, the champion of the embodied first-person narrator, is held in special reverence. So while the house of fiction may have not one window but in fact a million, the discussions of the occupants of Murnane’s house of fiction bring about the closure of all but one of those windows while at the same time articulating many ways of appreciating the landscape onto which it opens.
What, then, of Murnane’s own work, especially his earlier work, when held to the standards articulated in this book? Neither Tamarisk Row nor A Lifetime on Clouds displays a “narrative presence” of the sort that the occupants of the house require in a work of fiction. A Million Windows therefore seems to be, on one level, an attempt on Murnane’s part to elucidate and justify the aesthetics of his mature work and so to find space within his body of work for the markedly different aesthetics of the two novels he published prior to entering his mature period. The suggestion that A Million Windows was written with this objective in view appears early on, when the narrator shares some remarks made by “a university lecturer in Islamic philosophy” who taught him during his time as a student nearly fifty years earlier: 
He asked [his students] to call to mind a motor-car travelling on a road across a mostly level landscape. A person standing close beside the road and looking directly ahead would be aware for some time that the car has not yet reached him or her, then, for a brief time, that the car is present to his or her sight and then, for some time afterwards, that the car is no longer present, even if still audible. The lecturer then asked us to call to mind a person looking towards the road from an upper window of a building at some distance away. This person is aware of the car as being present to his or her sight during the whole time while it seems to be approaching, present to the sight of, and then travelling away from the person beside the road. 
What the lecturer shared with his students is an image of hindsight in its most literal sense, hindsight of a spatial rather than a temporal nature. One result of the narrator’s inclusion of this image in A Million Windows is the implication that A Million Windows itself is looking out on its own author and watching him watch his own books fly past, over the course of several decades, while he remains unable to perceive them long beyond the moment of their writing or to see the place they might come to occupy in the broader landscape of his life. Yet the narrator assures his readers that he has no desire to “repudiate any fiction of mine the narrator of which has the viewpoint described above” — a viewpoint tantamount to third-person omniscience — “but I have wanted, for almost as long as I have been a writer of fiction, to secure for myself a vantage-point from which each of the events reported in a work of fiction such as this present work, and each of the personages mentioned in the work, might seem, at one and the same time, a unique and inimitable entity impossible to define or to classify but also a mere detail in an intricate scheme or design.”
While not exactly rewriting or revising Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds, A Million Windows does attempt to incorporate their idiosyncrasies into the design of what has become the Murnane oeuvre, revisiting Clement Killeaton’s marble horse races and Adrian Sherd’s masturbation fantasies and then reconceptualising them as early manifestations of Murnane’s more recent metafictional interests. And while it does not shy away from the imagistic preoccupations of Barley Patch and A History of Books, it supplements their associative and recursive reminiscences with questions about the worth and value of fiction, with backward glances at bygone literary achievements and cold assessments of the likelihood of their longevity, which altogether involve its narrator subjecting himself to emotional risks that make A Million Windows more emotionally invested than either of its two predecessors. The result is an account of an author’s vexed ownership of all of the work that bears his name, a reconciliation of his early aesthetics with those of his more mature period, and a late attempt to unify, reconsider, and assess the lasting value of the fiction to which he has devoted his life — all without ever approaching these subjects directly or free of doubts and misgivings. A Million Windows is, in a sense, a retrospective manifesto written with an eye towards retroactive application: the last word on the work of a writer, written by the writer himself, so as to force readers to return to the first words he wrote and to cast a shadow over their readings of all the words that have appeared thereafter. - Daniel Davis Wood




Gerald Murnane, The Plains. Text Publishing, 2012. [1982.]


‘Murnane is quite simply one of the finest writers we have produced.’Peter Craven
‘A distinguished, distinctive, unforgettable novel.‘ - Shirley Hazzard

‘Gerald Murnane is unquestionably one of the most original writers working in Australia today and The Plains is a fascinating and rewarding book…The writing is extraordinarily good, spare, austere, strong, often oddly moving.’ - Australian

A piece of imaginative writing so remarkably sustained that it is a subject for meditation rather than a mere reading…In the depths and surfaces of this extraordinary fable you will see your inner self eerily reflected again and again.’ - Sydney Morning Herald

‘One of the strangest novels I’ve ever read. Murnane’s narrator is a film-maker who, in slow, hypnotic, maddening, recursive prose, recounts his efforts to make a film about the outback. It’s a story devoid of “events or achievements”. The real plains are the folds of the brain, which contain the elusive matter of memory. Murnane, a genius, is a worthy heir to Beckett. All his books are about hesitation and isolation; he himself rarely leaves home, and has never been out of Australia.’ - Teju Cole

Wayne Macauley, he of the Most Underrated Book Award fame, wrote in his introduction to my edition of Gerald Murnane‘s The plains that “you might not know where Murnane is taking you but you can’t help being taken”. That’s a perfect description of my experience of reading this now classic novella. It was like confronting a chimera – the lower case one, not the upper case – or, perhaps, a mirage. The more I read and felt I was getting close, the more it seemed to slip from my grasp, but it was worth the ride.
The plains was first published in 1982, which is, really, a generation ago. Australia had a conservative government. We still suffered from cultural cringe and also still felt that the outback defined us. All this may help explain the novel, but then again, it may not. However, as paradoxes and contradictions are part of the novel’s style, I make no apologies for that statement.
I’m not going to try to describe the plot, because it barely has one. It also has no named characters. However, it does have a loose sort of story, which revolves around the narrator who, at the start of the novel, is a young man who journeys to “the plains” in order to make a film. It doesn’t really spoil the non-existent plot to say he never does make the film. He does, however, acquire a patron – one of the wealthy landowners – who supports him in his endeavour over the next couple of decades. It is probably one of Murnane’s little ironies that our filmmaker spends more time writing. He says near the end:
For these men were confident that the more I strove to depict even one distinctive landscape – one arrangement of light and surfaces to suggest a moment on some plain I was sure of – the more I would lose myself in the manifold ways of words with no known plains behind them.
Hang onto that idea of sureness or certainty.
The book has a mythic feel to it, partly because of the lack of character names and the vagueness regarding place – we are somewhere in “Inner Australia” – and partly because of the philosophical, though by no means dry, tone. In fact, rather than being dry, the novel is rather humorous, if you are open to it. Some of this humour comes from a sense of the absurd that accompanies the novel, some from actual scenes, and some from the often paradoxical mind-bending ideas explored.
So, what is the novel about? Well, there’s the challenge, but I’ll start with the epigraph which comes from Australian explorer Thomas Mitchell‘s Three expeditions into the interior of eastern Australia, “We had at length discovered a country ready for the immediate reception of civilised man …”. Bound up in this epigraph are three notions – “interior”, “country” and “civilised”. These, in their multiple meanings, underpin the novel.
Take “interior”. Our narrator’s film is to be called The Interior. It is about “the interior” of the country, the plains, but it is also about the interior, the self, and how we define ourselves. While there are no named characters, there are people on the plains and there’s a sense of sophisticated thinking going on. Some plainspeople want to define the plains – their country, the interior – while others prefer to see them almost as undefinable, or “boundless”, as extending beyond what they can see or know. The plainspeople are “civilised” in the sense that they have their own artists, writers, philosophers, but it is hard for we readers to grasp just what this “civilisation” does for them. Is it a positive force? Does it make life better? “Civilised”, of course, has multiple meanings and as we read the novel we wonder just what sort of civilisation has ensconced itself on the plains.
These concepts frame the big picture but, as I was reading, I was confronted by idea after idea. My notes are peppered with jottings such as “tyranny of distance” and boundless landscapes; cultural cringe; exploration and yearning; portrait of the artist; time; history and its arbitrariness; illusion versus reality. These, and the myriad other ideas thrown up at us, are all worthy of discussion but if I engaged with them all my post would end up being longer than the novella, so I’ll just look at the issue of history, illusion and reality.
Towards the end of the novel we learn that our narrator’s patron likes to create “scenes”, something like living tableaux in which he assembles “men and women from the throng of guests in poses and attitudes of his own choosing and then taking photographs”. What is fascinating about this is the narrator’s ruminations on the later use of these “tedious tableaux” which have been created by a man who, in fact, admits he does not like “the art of photography”, doesn’t believe that photographs can represent the “visible world”. The landowner contrives the photos, placing people in groupings, asking them to look in certain directions. Our narrator says
There was no gross falsification of the events of the day. But all the collections of prints seemed meant to confuse, if not the few people who asked to ‘look at themselves’ afterwards, then perhaps the people who might come across the photographs years later, in their search for the earliest evidence that certain lives would proceed as they had in fact proceeded.
In other words, while the photos might document things that happened they don’t really represent the reality of the day, who spent time with whom, who was interested in whom and what. They might in fact give rise to a sense of certainty about life on the plains that is tenuous at best.
Much of the novel explores the idea of certainty and the sense that it is, perhaps, founded upon something very unstable. Murnane’s plainspeople tend to be more interested in possibilities rather than certainties. For them possibilities, once made concrete, are no longer of interest. It is in this vein that our narrator’s landowner suggests that darkness – which, when you think about it, represents infinite possibility – is the only reality.
The plains could be seen as the perfect novel for readers, because you can, within reason, pretty much make of it what you will. If this appeals to you, I recommend you read it. If it doesn’t, Murnane may not be the writer for you. - whisperinggums.com/2012/11/29/gerald-murnane-the-plains-review/


Gerald Murnane is a most mysterious author of strangely seductive books, and I’m currently reading Inland, first published in 1988 and now reprinted as part of the Australian Classics Library.  About 30 pages into the book I had to stop reading to dig out my reading journal (Vol12, p58) to see what I had written about The Plains, which I read back in 2007.  I thought I’d publish it here, and hopefully aficionados of Mr Murnane will seize upon my ramblings and set me straight.  Not likely, I know, but strange things happen in the LitBlogSphere…
This is a strange book.  Gerald Murnane won the 1999 Patrick White Award for under-recognised writers, and until good old Text republished this 1982 novella, it was out of print.  It seems to be a parable or an allegory but of what I am not sure.  For some reason it reminds me of Kafka, but I’m not scholarly enough to know why, except for an incident where the young film-maker petitioning the Plainsmen dare not leave his seat for fear of losing his place.  After 24 hours he is unshaven and in need of a pee, but it’s ok because it makes the Plainsmen feel superior.  This is like K waiting on the bench to sort out his petition.
The Plains is set in an imaginary world where there is inner Australia where the Plainsmen are, and the coast, which has ceased to be important.  The young film-maker, along with many other supplicants such as designers of emblems, wait to present their projects to the Plainsmen who come into town every now and again for the purpose of hearing (but mostly rejecting) the petitions.
Is Murnane mocking the university application process?  One applicant designs a (PhD gone wrong?) program which analyses the interior decorating choices made since settlement and (in a parody?) makes some kind of sense out of what were random choices so that the Plainsmen can feel superior to the others.  The young man wants to make a film out of them, handicapped by his inability to find out the truth about a long-standing (but inane) feud between the Haresmen (gold) and the Horizonutes (blue-green).  This bit’s very odd.  It’s strangely seductive, however…
The writing becomes yet more opaque.  The film-maker is accepted by the one of the landowners and given free rein to research and plan his film.  He is being paid too, but after ten years is still debating with himself how to do it! The issue seems to be, how to make the film and its images unique and yet faithful to the ordinariness of the plains.  It also mustn’t be tainted by images from Outer Australia.  Has the film-maker/narrator been sucked into the odd beliefs of these Plainsmen so that he can no longer be an observer?  Is he a lotus-eater?  I’m mystified…
One of the conundrums is that an explanation or theory must not be complete.  So when the landowner expounds his theory of Time as the Opposite Plain, the film-maker is suspicious that he must be privately really investigating the other populaar theories because the Time theory is too complete.  Is Murnane mocking arcane academic theorising here?
The wife of the landowner comes into the library, but they never speak and he knows nothing about her.  By the rules of the Plains one entertains possibilities but there is no need to do anything other than explore them.  So he decides to write some essays exploring a relationship between them and have it published and reviewed and then placed in the library where she might find it and read it.  But then he decides that he only wants her to know that he wrote it for her, not to read it so he worries about how he might get it reviewed without there being any books in existence.  For some reason this sequence reminds me of The Shadow of the Wind, about the Last Book.  Oh, too odd, I can’t penetrate the ideas behind this book!
The ending is bizarre.  Like all the other writers, artists, modellers etc, the film-maker is required to present a ‘revelation’, attended by the locals.  He gets up and talks about how he can’t possibly film this or that indefinable aspect of the Plains.  They like this, because it’s impossible to make a film about the Plains, so even though the numbers dwindle over the now 20 years  he’s been there, he always has an audience.  It ends with his patron photographing him filming nothing at all.
*
Now in 2009 when I know about Calvino, I think The Plains is an example of postmodernism…but I’d love to be enlightened further. Over to you, cyberspace.


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. - Jim Murdoch
  
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.
There is no book in Australian literature like The Plains. In the two decades since its first publication, this haunting novel has earned its status as a classic. A nameless young man arrives on the plains and begins to document the strange and rich culture of the plains families. As his story unfolds, the novel becomes, in the words of Murray Bail, ‘a mirage of landscape, memory, love and literature itself’.
It could be claimed (and I am about to) that Gerald Murnane’s 1982 novel The Plains has the most compelling opening in Australian fiction:
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.
My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.
Readers familiar with Murnane will immediately recognise and respond to the familiar cadence of those immaculately crafted sentences. Some might also find in them a resonance with the elegiac and lyrical tone of the oft-quoted opening to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with its yearning evocation of the narrator’s “younger and more vulnerable years”.
Comparisons between the two novels do not end there – both are effectively no more than novellas, with The Plains weighing in at a mere 126 pages in its original edition; and both take us into the mansions of a fabled and gilded aristocracy. In the case of Gatsby, this is offshore into the nouveau riche enclaves of jazz era Long Island; in The Plains the movement is in the other direction: inland, into the sitting-rooms, libraries and corridors of the great houses of the established old-money pastoral families who dominate the plains.
Murnane’s readers will also recognise in those few spare opening words a microcosm of the emotional resonance that the writer has brought to Australian fiction for four decades – a solipsistic and neo-romantic yearning for a moment of revelation, of epiphany, whereby everything will be explained.
As Murnane wrote in another novel, “One of the first things I discovered about the world was that I seemed shut out of the best part of it”, and his fiction has been a relentless quest to reveal that “best part”.
This quest is frequently represented by Murnane as the illusion created by flat landscapes, by plains, with the promise forever on the horizon, seemingly within reach but inevitably retreating as the viewer approaches. Fulfilment is forever deferred, but the quest remains as obsessive as Jay Gatsby’s doomed pursuit of Daisy Buchanan.
Understandably, a potential reader of The Plains will ask, “OK, but what’s it about?” There is no simple answer to that question, other than noting the narrator is an unnamed filmmaker attempting to film the plains in a way that will reconcile the opposing worldviews of two cliques of plainsmen who use their wealth to support an elaborate system of patronage whereby artists are employed to interpret or represent the meaning of their jealously guarded and endlessly elusive landscape.
And if that summary isn’t sufficient to make it clear, it should be stressed that The Plains is a fable, or an allegory, or a parable – almost anything but the “dun-coloured realism” that has so often been the result when Australians have contemplated flat land. Instead the narrative is consumed by the filmmaker’s extended rumination – a quasi-philosophical disquisition on the nature of landscape, time, place, creation, heraldry, patronage, libraries, unattainable women and deferred speech, in which he attempts to reconcile the contours of his own image-laden imagination with the immense physical landscape of the plains.
Certainly The Plains is a notoriously difficult novel to pin down, given that it resembles little else in Australian fiction other than other novels by Murnane, but it is not a difficult novel to read. For although it is largely devoid of plot, and proceeds for the most part without dialogue, action, or – in the conventional sense – characters, it is also provocative, intensely engaging, endlessly quotable, funny, and immensely readable.
It possesses the particular genius of provoking the reader into questioning their own perception of the world; of querying the “reality” outside our own consciousness, our own way of knowing, and of the time and place that we glibly accept and casually share with others.
I am not sure that when expressed like that its seems like a particularly wondrous or even desirable thing, but when you feel it emerging from the page before you, provoked by no more than the craft of arranging words, then you can be sure you are in the presence of rare fiction.
he Plains may not even be the finest of Murnane’s novels – a choice between it or Landscape with Landscape or Emerald Blue or A History of Books is one I hope I am not required to make – but it is the book that provides the most intense representation of its creator’s extraordinary imaginative landscape.
And maybe it is that observation that comes closest to answering the question of what the novel, and so much of Murnane’s writing, is “about” – testing the capacity of fiction to provide as pure a representation as possible of its author’s perception of his world.
Which also takes us back to those opening sentences, and another question they might raise for the would-be-reader. If the narrator has indeed “left Australia”, then where is he?
The answer in the novel’s own terms is “inner Australia”, a place that is both interior to, but somehow separate from, “outer Australia”. Inner Australia can be read simply as being mimetic of the narrator’s interiority, but I believe that it is not quite so straightforward.
The reader is instructed by the narrator that “all talk of a nation presupposed the existence of certain influential but rarely seen landscapes”, and that “the boundaries of true nations were fixed in the souls of men”. The Plains invites, even requires, the reader to re-imagine “Australia”, “nation”, “land” and “home”, concepts that float at the edge of a narrative at the centre of which lies the ache of exile and displacement.
The question to ask is not so much whether the novel set in Australia but rather “what is Australia?”, or even “where is Australia?”. At the time of the novel’s publication, amid the pious certainties leading up to the Bicentenary, such questions might have seemed spurious; in 2014, when border protection, foreign ownership and geo-political realignment are part of daily conversation, they seem both sound and serious.
The Plains shares with The Great Gatsby not only one of the most engaging openings in their respective literatures, but also an equally evocative finale. The full stretch of Fitzgerald’s elegy is expressed in the closing resignation, that “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.
In Murnane’s book, the filmmaker’s contemplation of his 20 years on the plains and his unmade film finds him still pushing against the current, but confronted – as always – by his incapacity to express anything beyond the grip of his own obsessions.
I lifted my own camera to my face and stood with my eye pressed against the lens and my finger poised as if to expose to the film in its dark chamber the darkness that was the only visible sign of whatever I saw beyond myself.
The final unanswerable question, is whether that sentence should be read as an expression of failure or success? Either way, it is something to be reckoned with. – Paul Genon

I've been meaning to read more Australian literature for a while now, but my focus on fiction in translation has got in the way of that a little.  Actually, that's a slight understatement - in the first eight months of the year, I didn't manage to review a single Australian book... However, with a trip to the Melbourne Writers Festival on the agenda, it was time to crack open one of the many books languishing on my shelves.  Gerald Murnane is a writer I've been wanting to try for some time, and (as I mentioned in my festival review) he's certainly an entertaining speaker.  Let's see what I think about his writing ;)
*
The Plains, one of the first titles in the Text Classics series, is a short novel written back in 1982.  It follows a man who ventures into inland Australia to explore 'the plains', an undefined area away from the noise of the east-coast cities.  His reason for visiting the interior is to work on a film, a piece which will capture the splendour of the wide-open expanses, and after a short period of adjustment, he meets a group of local landowners, whose patronage is vital if he is to be able to work on his project. Things are very different on the plains, though, and time passes differently to how it moves in 'Outer Australia'.  As the days pass, we suspect that there is very little chance of the film ever being finished, the man's lengthy stay reaching epic proportions.  Still, the longer he works on his project, the more he realises that the plains are worth studying - even if he'll never be able to understand them completely. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much the whole plot of The Plains - if you're the kind of reader who likes things to, you know, happen in a novel, then I'd advise you to cut your losses here and go and find something else to do.  This is a work which moves at its own pace, a novel which, while it might be interested in may things, has little time for a reader who isn't prepared to settle down and forget the call of the outside world for a while. The physical setting of the novel is the key to understanding it, and the filmmaker lays it out for us right at the start: 
"Unchecked by hills or mountains, the sunlight in summer occupied the whole extent of the land from dawn till sunset.  And in winter the winds and showers sweeping across the great open spaces barely faltered at the few stands of timber meant as shelter for men or animals.  I knew that there were great plains of the world that lay for months under snow, but I was pleased that my own district was not one of them.  I much preferred to see all year the true configuration of the earth itself and not the false hillocks and hollows of some other element.  In any case, I thought of snow (which I had never seen) as too much a part of European and American culture to be appropriate to my own region." pp.6/7 (Text Classics, 2012)
At times, the novel takes care in its description of the outside environment, the lengthy, unhurried passages contributing to the leisurely pace of the novel. However, the detailed description is actually at odds with the vague nature of the location of the plains.  We know that we are in the interior, but where exactly the filmmaker has ended up is fairly unimportant.  One thing we do know is that the plainsmen have a great suspicion for anything which comes from the coast - or "Outer Australia"...
The filmmaker learns of the two great art groups of the region, rivals who debate the nature of the beauty of the plains.  However, when a third group attempts to spread its own views, the Horizonites & Haremen unite to drive out this 'foreign' concept: 
"They discredited it finally on the simple grounds that it was derived from ideas current in Outer Australia.  The plainsmen were not always opposed to borrowings and importations, but in the matter of culture they had come to scorn the seeming barbarisms of their neighbours in the coastal cities and damp ranges.  And when the more acute plainsmen had convinced the public that this latest group were drawing on a jumble of the worst kinds of foreign notions, the members of the despised group chose to cross the Great Dividing Range rather than endue the enmity of all thinking plainsmen." (pp.33/4)
This idea of hostility to the big cities and 'Inner Australia' as a true nation might seem far-fetched, but it really is a different world away from the East Coast (Western Australia, for example, the large state on the other coast of the continent, often sees itself as a very different entity to the rest of the country...). Putting aside the disputes with Outer Australia, though, life passes slowly on the plains, frustratingly so for anyone hoping to get things done.  The filmmaker's wait for an audience with the landowners takes much of the first part of the novel, and his days in the landowner's private library (mostly spent gazing out at a restricted view of the plains) pretty much fills up the rest of the book.  In fact, the more you think about The Plains, with its nameless characters, the futility of the main character's quest, with a film never to be finished, the more other writers' work comes to mind.
The quiet, ever-changing library, and the odd sense of time passing and yet standing still, definitely has shades of Borges, albeit a much more relaxed Borges, but the sheer futility of much of what happens reminds me unmistakably of Kafka.  We mustn't forget that this is Australia, though.  While Kafka's protagonists race around, shouting, blustering, hoping to force their way into seeing the right people, Murnane's creation is very much a man of his people.  He's happy to take his time - his appointment is in a pub, not a cramped office - and while he's waiting he may as well have a beer or five, as do his interviewers when he finally gets to join them... The Plains is a beautiful, understated piece of writing, a relatively short book, but one which leaves the reader with a lot to think about.  Quite apart from deciding which of the rival camps to side with on the question of the beauty of the plains (does it lie in the vast, endless horizon or the microscopic detail of ears of wheat?), we are asked to contemplate the idea that possibilities are more important than achievements.  You see, when things are achieved, the other possibilities disappear (which again hints that the man's film is highly unlikely to be completed...).
The people of the plains go in for their own form of philosophy, one which looks for the meaning of life in a focus on very subjective truths: 
"What might not follow, they ask themselves, if there should be nothing more substantial in all our experience than those discoveries that seem too slight to signify anything apart from their own brief occurrence?  How might a man reorder his conduct if he could be assured that the worth of a perception, a memory, a supposition, was enhanced rather than diminished by its being inexplicable to others?  And what could a man not accomplish, freed from any obligation to search for so-called truths apart from those demonstrated by his search for a truth peculiar to him?" (pp.110/1) Which is probably a good place to note that any attempt to decipher Murnane's work is probably doomed to failure.  As he said in his talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival, nobody could ever come close to understanding what he wants to say through his work and what his novels mean to him... Still, despite being indecipherable (and virtually plotless), The Plains is a great read, a soothing piece of writing which leaves you vaguely glimpsing a concealed philosophy, but unable to quite discern its contours - and yet you're not really that bothered (this is Australia, after all...).  I'm definitely keen to read more of Murnane's work, especially his first book, Tamarisk Row, and his latest, A Million Windows, as they were the ones discussed most in his talk.  Outwardly, Murnane and his novels are very Australian, but there's definitely something else waiting to be discovered at the core of his work - if you're just patient enough to wait for it to reveal itself...
Oh, while you're waiting, why not get yourself a cold one? ;) - Tony Malone

The “annual revelations” that our narrator describes near the end of this fine book gives credence to what came before.  The evidence contained decanters of hard liquor, stiff-backed uncomfortable chairs, tents staked in tall grasses on vistas of windowless walls, and little said or exampled but more of the same in a serious study never concluded in which libraries remain for all students and scholars to be seen and read of the vast and mounting compilations of a history regarding these interior plains.  An exhausting review by me of this book so unnecessary, and even to seem, if exhibited, redundant in its praises.  A Murnane language pure and sophisticated, transcribed in flowing terms, its manner appealing and appreciated by a person such as I who wishes he could have been instead the one to have written this book first.  
The narrator wanting, it seems, to be seen as a film maker whose work truly matters, for years out of sight and hidden away in some corner behind drawn blinds of a silent library, who after all this time still remains dedicated to his project and long efforts to discover a fitting landscape in which to film, necessarily recognizing the meaning of what he saw, and would one day perhaps actually film the dark chamber beyond its visible darkness.  The only comparison I have to Murnane’s writing is the many scribblings of philosopher Gilles Deleuze who spoke almost endlessly of being and becoming, of rhizomes and their meanderings, and the difficulties of finally getting anywhere.  This is a book I will definitely read again and it is likely to have led me on to a further study of the complete work of Gerald Murnane, which in my opinion, is the highest compliment to ones efforts of a lifetime. - M Sarki

Gerald Murnane's The plains was a fascinating novel for we Minervans to finish our reading year on. It was our third Text Classics book of the year, though we enjoyed looking at the wide range of editions the members who attended the meeting had read.
I use "fascinating" somewhat loosely because most of us found it a challenging read, with some of us enjoying it more than others. One member said that she felt she wasn't getting anywhere, like she "was wading through treacle"! Another said it was "mercifully short"! One member had read several reviews but found they did not really explain the book any more to her. We agreed that that's probably because it's an elusive book and one that's not easy to explain ... which may in fact be part of Murnane's intention.
So, I won't really try to explain it except to say that it's told first person by a narrator who, at the beginning, is a young man who travels to the plains with the intention of making a film about them and the plainspeople. The plains are not defined in specific detail other than being, perhaps, Other Australia. (They are probably inspired, though, by the plains of northwest Victoria). The rest of the novel (novella?) comprises this character's discussions, meditations, ruminations on life among the plains people, mostly from the home of the landowner who has become his patron. The novel starts: 
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.
Our discussion started with one member suggesting that the novel felt a bit like academic life. She elaborated by saying that it's about a group of people beavering away in their own arbitrarily defined worlds with their own set of assumptions. These people pursue their ideas in their own way, and follow and follow and follow those ideas, not worrying if along the way the ideas they are pursuing become disconnected from life. The obscure wars between Horizonites and Haremen seemed also to fit in with this idea. How many obscure academic disputes - wars even - have happened over the centuries?
One member in particular found it a frustrating read and was infuriated by the secondary role women play in the novel, stating that this dated the novel. She also felt that its focus on wealthy landowners dated it. Others argued that it's a timeless, mythical sort of book and that therefore these things that might bother them in a realistic novel did not bother them here.
What made the book hardest to read, we felt, is the fact that it has no real characterisation or plot, making it quite an alternative sort of literature. This reminded us of Samuel Beckett - and one reader said that her introduction by the American poet, Zawacki, noted that Murnane is closest to writers like Proust, Beckett, and Kafka. The scene in the pub where the artists are waiting to be called into their interviews with the landowners was somewhat reminiscent, a member said, of the characters waiting for the trial in Kafka.
We talked about the beauty of the sentences. Many were long, and some were hard to grasp, but they were generally beautifully formed and lovely to read. It was suggested that you could take almost any sentence and have a philosophical discussion about it. Some felt the first part of the three-part book was the easiest to read and comprehend, while others found the last two parts more readable. Some of us found the book funny, and at times satiric or ironic. It seems often to deal in paradoxes. We wondered whether Murnane is also a poet, as the writing feels a bit like poetry, particularly in the abstract way it explores ideas.
We discussed the idea that our reaction to this book says perhaps more about us as readers than about the book - an interesting idea to contemplate because perhaps, more than most books we've read, this book made us think about the reading process and what we like and don't like, what we look for. We learnt a little more about each other as readers as a result!
As to what the book is about, we threw up many ideas, such as:
  • Time, and how we understand time.
  • Possibilities and not wanting to achieve them or pin them down but rather to always have them ahead, undefined and unresolved. 
  • The idea of secret lives happening, of culture going on elsewhere that we know nothing about.
  • History and the desire to make sense of records from the past that might in fact be quite arbitrary.
Another issue we explored was whether we might be able to draw any conclusions from when it was written. It was published in 1982, the Fraser era, a pre-modern (our current modern anyhow!) Australia when, although we were highly urbanised, we still had a sense of being defined by the bush, by the interior. One member saw shades of Patrick White's Voss in the sense of looking inwards, though said they are very different books. Another said it felt a little like Cormac McCarthy's Blood meridian and the mythic sense he conveys with larger than life characters, though again said they are very different books.
Finally we discussed the fact that the narrator plans to make a film - though he never does. We considered Australian films like The proposition and The tracker (in which the characters aren't named). These films focus somewhat on how we deal with landscape, with place. We wondered whether Murnane is creating in this novel a filmic view of ourselves, a chimera perhaps? There's a sense of exploring the nexus between illusion and reality and not being sure, or not wanting to define, where one ends and the other begins. Without giving anything away, the novel closes on an image of the narrator with his "eye pressed against the lens" of his camera. One member thought was a perfect image - in and, perhaps, for the book. - minervareads.blogspot.com/2012/11/gerald-murnanes-plains.html

A Vertigo reader recently noticed that I reacted badly to Gerald Murnane’s 1982 novel The Plains, which I read in the 2003 edition put out by the press of Western Michigan University.  I had summarized my response to The Plains in one sentence: 
Andrew Zawacki’s Foreword to this 1982 Australian novel extols this “elusive” novel as a kind of minor masterpiece, but I could never buy into Murnane’s eccentric vision, which nullified any formal achievement he might have accomplished.
“I would be interested to hear more about why this was the case,” the reader commented.  “I have always found Murnane’s books to be brilliant, and consider The Plains one of his best.”  My allergic reaction to The Plains was pretty severe, so I decided to take up the challenge by re-reading The Plains and doing a full post on the book.
I had never read anything by Murnane before, but a recommendation from someone I highly admire led me to order The Plains and dive in as soon as it arrived.  Murnane’s book overflows with modernist and post-modernist devices that reward close reading and I was underlining furiously for the first few pages.  At the outset, I found myself agreeing with Andrew Zawacki’s Foreword  that this was a goldmine of a novel.  But before very long, I realized that my literary detective function was working overtime (I was underlining most of the book), yet I cared less and less about turning the page.  The Plains had turned into a hall of mirrors, an exercise that became maddening for me simply because the rewards were so minor.  Murnane seems to deliberately make it clear that the actual narrative of The Plains is of little interest to him; what matters is the meta-narrative.  But for me the meta-narrative never becomes richer or deeper.  Instead, Murnane repeats the same themes in countless minor variations until the whole enterprise becomes precious and brittle.
The plot is simple.  An erstwhile filmmaker takes up residence in a community somewhere out on “the plains” of Australia to do research for a film, which, we increasingly come to realize, will never be made.  Once he reaches his destination, he never actually looks at the plains again, but contemplates his chosen topic obliquely through his encounters with the people he calls “the plainsmen.”  The filmmaker’s “research” consumes years, even though the book is barely 100 pages long.
In a strange way, The Plains is a novel about knowledge.  But even though the core of the book focuses on the filmmaker’s never ending research, this is not an epistemological undertaking.  Murnane seems utterly uninterested in knowledge: he’s not interested in the nature of knowledge or even in the ambiguity or elusiveness of knowledge.  Rather, The Plains is about the willful refusal of knowledge through deliberate emotional isolation.  Despite various forms of socializing, the filmmaker and the plainsmen go to great lengths to impose great emotional distances between each other.  Here’s an example.  Late in the novel the filmmaker is taken in as a guest by a wealthy plainsman, where his stay is vaguely described as lasting some five or ten years.  During this period he spends much of his time consulting in the mansion’s seemingly endless library, where he routinely encounters the wife of his host.  The two exchange only occasional “polite words.”  Eventually, the filmmaker becomes obsessed with the idea of trying to communicate with her – but only in ways that are destined to fail. 
But I was not bothered for long by the likelihood of her never reading my words.  If everything that passed between us existed only as a set of possibilities, my aim should have been to broaden the scope of her speculations about me.  She ought to acquire not specific information but facts barely sufficient to distinguish me.  In short, she should not read a word of mine, although she should know that I had written something she might have read.
The Plains is replete with similar situations, in which non-communication is the desired outcome. 
Listening to the plainsmen, I had a bewildering sense that they wanted no common belief to fall back on: that each one of them became uncomfortable if another seemed to take as understood something he himself claimed for the plains as a whole.  It was as though each plainsman chose to appear as a solitary inhabitant of a region that only he could explain.
Or: 
…I saw that what had sometimes been described as the arrogance of the plainsmen was no more than their reluctance to recognize any common ground between themselves and others…A plainsman would not only claim to be ignorant of the ways of other regions but willingly appear to be misinformed about them.  Most irritating of all to outsiders, he would affect to be without any distinguishing culture rather than allow his land and his ways to be judged part of some larger community of contagious tastes or fashions.
Or: 
The plainsmen’s heroes, in life and in art, were such as the man who went home every afternoon 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 is not simply a case of The Plains being irritating or deliberately obscure, because I tend to thrive in those kinds of difficult, challenging books.  In the end, all of Murnane’s literary devices and philosophical games came to feel quirky and arbitrary, and I simply didn’t care any more.  Perhaps Murnane had won after all.  I didn’t want to know anything more about his book, which was beginning to appear like a Rubik’s Cube of only one color.- sebald.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/gerald-murnanes-hall-of-mirrors/




Gerald Murnane, Barley Patch. Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.


read it at Google Books

Barley Patch takes as its subject the reasons an author might abandon fiction—or so he thinks—forever. Using the form of an oblique self-interrogation, it begins with the Beckettian question “Must I write?” and proceeds to expand from this small, personal query to fill in the details of a landscape entirely unique in world letters, a chronicle of the images from life and fiction that have endured and mingled in the author’s mind, as well as the details (and details within details) that they contain. As interested, if not more so, in the characters from his books—finished or unfinished—as with the members of his family or his daily life, the narrator lays bare the act of writing and imagining, finally giving us a glimpse of the mythical place where the characters of fiction dwell before they come into existence in books. In the spirit of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, Barley Patch is like no other fiction being written today.

Barley Patch takes as its subject the reasons an author might abandon fiction—or so he thinks—forever. Using the form of an oblique self-interrogation, it begins with the Beckettian question “Must I write?” and proceeds to expand from this small, personal query to fill in the details of a landscape entirely unique in world letters, a chronicle of the images from life and fiction that have endured and mingled in the author’s mind, as well as the details (and details within details) that they contain. As interested, if not more so, in the characters from his books—finished or unfinished—as with the members of his family or his daily life, the narrator lays bare the act of writing and imagining, finally giving us a glimpse of the mythical place where the characters of fiction dwell before they come into existence in books. In the spirit of Italo Calvino and Georges Perec, Barley Patch is like no other fiction being written today.

"The result, which falls somewhere between philosophical essay and prose-poem, and which forms a sort of symbolic mirror or key to the autobiographical fictions Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds, is the kind of uncategorisable document that can be compared only with similar hybrids" - Geordie Williamson
"The novel, itself a complex weave of fact and fiction, tries to divine a way of producing fiction set within an imaginative plane different from reality. Yet the novel fails to achieve this goal. Instead, its main accomplishment is its transcendence of image." - Sarah L. Hopkinson, The Harvard Crimson 
"Grasping just how the other world relates to this one is the main obstacle to understanding what Murnane is doing, or believes himself to be doing, in his fiction. (...) (W)hile there is a Murnanian topography of the mind, there is no Murnanian theory of the mind worth speaking of. If there is some central, originary shaping force behind the fictions of the mind, it can barely be called a force: its essence seems to be a watchful passivity." - J.M.Coetzee
 
Barley Patch would seem, at first glance, to be a work of non-fiction, Murnane beginning by throwing out the question: "Must I write ? and then expounding on why, in 1991, after thirty years of writing fiction, he gave up doing so. Yet throughout he explicitly refers to this work -- to Barley Patch -- as a work of fiction, and he makes sure readers remember that:
I should remind the reader that every sentence hereabouts is part of a work of fiction.
       He admits, too, that: "This is necessarily a complex piece of fiction". Certainly, it is not a 'novel' or 'story' in what might be considered the traditional sense -- but then Murnane also notes very early on that while his publishers have presented his works as (and readers have generally considered them to be): "either novels or short stories", this:
began in time to make me feel uncomfortable, and I took to using only the word fiction as the name for what I wrote.
       (The message apparently only got so far: the Dalkey Archive Press edition of this book (2011) still insists on labeling it: "A NOVEL" -- albeit only in small print on the back cover, next to the price.)
       Murnane insistence on his writing -- and specifically this piece of writing -- being considered and called 'fiction' is central to his thesis and project. True, his insistence that this, in particular, is fiction is certainly counterintuitive: the narrative seems to consist mainly of autobiographical material and commentary, and the natural instinct is to read Barley Patch as memoir, and as a gloss on his earlier fiction. To do so, however, would be a mistake -- and not just because of his repeated reminders that he considers this work 'fiction'.
       In fact, Barley Patch tries to get at the very root of what 'fiction' is, and does so by focusing first on reading and then on writing. Significantly, for Murnane reading and writing are not two different sides of it -- reading is not merely passive consumption, and writing active creation -- but rather both central and inextricably connected.
       Barley Patch does chronicle Murnane's transition from being (mainly) a reader to being (mainly) a writer (and, eventually, supposedly a non-writer), and early on in the book he describes his varied childhood reading experiences. Even before this, however, he warns readers that he has long avoided words like imagination, admitting:
Long before I stopped writing, I had come to understand that I had never created any character or imagined any plot. My preferred way of summing up my deficiencies was to say simply that I had no imagination.
       Yet he shows himself to be a very creative person, both as reader and writer. However, his way of reading (and, clearly, writing) is not textbook (or classroom): as he notes, for example, he finds descriptive passages do not serve the purpose they seem to be designed for -- indeed, he has little use for them (or at least not the use authors would seem to have in mind):
I can recall my having discovered as early as in 1952, while I was reading Little Women, by Louisa M. Alcott, that the female characters-in-my-mind, so to call them, were completely different in appearance from the characters-in-the-text, so to call them.
       Similarly, he describes reading The Glass Spear by Sidney Hobson Courtier and admits that, in getting carried away by one of the characters, "I often disregarded the facts of the novel, so to call them". Clearly, Murnane is wrong to say he has no imagination (in the traditional sense) -- he (re)imagines characters' appearance or even changes the plots despite what amounts to written instructions to the contrary, which suggests quite a vivid imagination -- but this, too, is central to his understanding of fiction and writing.
       Murnane comes to the conclusion that:
Any personage referred to in my fiction has its existence only in my mind and finds its way into my fiction only so that I might learn why it occupies in my mind the position that it occupies there.
       Such personages include his self; soon later, he recounts another part of his life from a different vantage point, his alter ego here the "chief character", and Murnane acknowledging that:
     Very early in his life, the chief character became accustomed to thinking of his mind as a place. It was, of course, not a single place but a place containing other places: a far-reaching and varied landscape. 
       It is what might more commonly be referred to as imagination, but Murnane carefully avoids considering it that -- indeed, he deliberately refuses to do so. Yet his 'chief character' -- i.e. he -- both immerses himself in it and feels comfortable manipulating it:
     He was no mere observer of mental scenery. He was not long in learning that he could alter certain details and have them stay as he preferred them to be. 
       So also it was with how he described reading: an author's words, describing with great specificity, nevertheless remain malleable: he can make of them what he will. (So too, by extension, all of reality .....) And so, for example, he suggests it can boil down to:
I can only suppose that I wrote fiction for thirty or more years in order to rid myself of certain obligations that I felt as a result of my having read fiction.
       Indeed, he seems to have withdrawn both into reading and into writing (and both activities are clearly presented as withdrawals -- excuses, in part, for not participating in many aspects of 'life') in order to get at what is in his mind, to make the connection between entirely interior, almost Berkeleyan idealism, and the world-at-large. So, too, the very existence of Barley Patch, a return to fiction after fourteen years of not writing it, answers what proves to be the entirely rhetorical question that it opens with: "Must I write ?" Yet 'writing', in its getting-into-his-own-mind sense that Murnane uses it also encompasses reading -- and surely, too, allows for silence.
       It is also worth noting that Murnane admits very early on that: "Some of what I had written had been published, but most of it had been stored as manuscripts or typescripts in my filing cabinets and will be there still when I die", suggesting he was far more prolific than is commonly thought (or that his published output suggests), and that he distinguishes between publishing -- writing-for-public-consumption -- and simply writing, and that he perhaps did not 'not write' for quite as long as that fourteen year span he claims. (The terms he uses -- 'manuscripts' and 'typescripts' -- also suggests works that have been completed, i.e. more than just notes and jottings.)
       His emphasis on published work is also of significance because of the effect it had on his relationships with family members, who saw his early works as betrayals. In Barley Patch he also presents a great deal of autobiographical material, and information about family members: clearly, however, Murnane sees this -- like everything -- as 'fiction' -- something very different from more traditional 'fictionalized accounts' (which, however, is how his family appears to have taken them).
       For Murnane there is a fundamental disconnect between the mind-world -- manifested in fiction, read and written -- and the 'real' world. Fiction -- writing and reading it -- is not about bridging that disconnect, but rather about exploring the mind-world. The real world is something else entirely.
       A cathartic moment of sorts comes when Murnane visits a dying uncle, and they studiously avoid any mention of Murnane's fiction (which had led the uncle to break completely with Murnane years earlier). Their conversation only lasts an hour but this:
might have been the first time for as long as I could remember when I had kept out of my mind all thoughts of books of fiction that I had written or of books of fiction that I hoped to write in future and perhaps, too, of books of fiction that other persons had written and that I had read.
       Indeed:
I might have said afterwards that I had survived for an hour without fiction or that I had experienced life for a little the life I would have led if I had never had recourse to fiction.
       Yet, as the existence of Barley Patch, and of this passage in Barley Patch -- a reworking of experience as fiction -- demonstrate, Murnane can not escape fiction. Experience -- just 'living' (even at its most extreme, confronting death) -- is not sufficient; Murnane must address it via fiction.
       In Barley Patch Murnane tries to convey his mind-world, and what fiction means to him. It is a beautifully executed work: long sections appear autobiographical, but in their presentation are also building-blocks in the theoretical structure he is constructing here. Often he comments on what he has written, determined to remind readers that they are reading a constructed text ("I reported at the end of the fifth paragraph before the previous paragraph"), and he works fictions that he describes as unfinished or potential into this (finished, actual) one.
       In this book Murnane appears to follow closely the idea of writing-what-you-know, but that is deceptive: what he is after is not getting at description -- at conveying photographically or cinematically a scene for readers to vividly have in front of them -- but in conveying knowing. Hence also his emphasis on describing how his own reading of others' fiction often diverges from the texts themselves.
       One can only hope that this book is assigned in every creative writing class out there: here is a near-perfect example of what fiction can do, and what can be done with fiction. (Apparently, however, it must be read with care, or at least a certain open-mindedness; many of the reviewers seem to see and interpret it as essentially non-fiction, and that doesn't get you anywhere.)
       Simply brilliant. - M.A.Orthofer


To begin his latest book, a serious, meditative work called Barley Patch, Australian author Gerald Murnane confesses that he had an aesthetic crisis some years ago that threatened to end his long career. "In the early autumn of 1991," he writes, "four years before I ceased to be a teacher of fiction-writing … I myself gave up writing fiction."
The symptoms of this crisis, and the book itself, are challenging to understand. Though Murnane has published many books and won numerous prizes, he observed, at the time, that he "had not for many years used the terms novel or short story in connection with my writing" and would only let himself call them fiction. And though he'd spent decades teaching creative writing, he suddenly had no tolerance for normal talk of literary matters: "Several other words I likewise avoided: create, creative, imagine, imaginary, and, above all, imagination". Finally, although he has published, by his own account, more than half a million words, he believed then that he "had never created any character or imagined and plot" and concluded that his "preferred way of summing up my deficiencies was to say simply that I had no imagination".
These are rather severe statements for a writer to make about his own success. Murnane was born in Melbourne in 1939, has never lived far from the city and has published eight works, including Tamarisk Row and The Plains.
In 2010, he won the Adelaide Festival Award, and was also a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Though his reputation hardly rivals that of Peter Carey, his compatriot and two-time Booker Prize winner, Murnane's stature has grown to the point now where he can apparently afford to risk starting a book by telling readers how lousy a writer he thinks he is.
Having diagnosed his ailments as a writer - or having dramatised them for his readers' benefit, to disarm us - he then tells how he eventually discovered a cure, a rather wonderful idea captured in a single sentence: "During the rest of my life I would go on reading from a vast book with no pages, or I would write intricate sentences made up of items other than words".
To fill this "vast book with no pages", he then investigates memories from his early life.
Meanwhile, he playfully, or sternly insists (it's hard to tell which) that the book is fiction, yet most of his anecdotes read as frank autobiographical confessions in this long, self-reflexive literary experiment that seeks to illuminate "a country on the far side of fiction".
We're meant to be on Murnane's side as he tries to accomplish this task, and to learn why it is he thought he had to stop writing.
The trouble is that the book's style and substance are clinical and vague, respectively. Clear ideas and sentences do appear every so often and things pick up very well in the book's second part. But the gems are hidden under layers of muddied prose, without organised chapters, and reads too often like the literary fine print of a lawyer honour-bound to write only Proustian rigmarole: "This work of fiction is a report of scenes and events occurring in my mind. While writing this work of fiction, I have observed no other rules or conventions than those that seem to operate in that part of my mind wherein I seem to witness scenes and events demanding to be reported in a work of fiction".
The "rules and conventions", and the "intricate sentences" he warned us about prove to be quirks he's adopted to prove his experimental point. They hurt the book. Among many examples of aggravating language, we have: "As for New Zealand, I had never supposed that I could travel thither", and "The first word is the surname of my paternal great-grandfather followed by the possessive apostrophe" followed by "The aunt mentioned hereabouts could well have afforded to visit a hairdresser whenever she so wished" and "I gave to the image in my mind of the young woman a face that I would have called attractive, but I found her much less interesting than another female character who will be mentioned shortly".
This "report of scenes and events occurring in my mind" starts with early memories. He was a child raised in a poor Catholic family during the 1950s and 1960s. His father, "a compulsive gambler", bet heavily on racehorses, and jockeys' racing colours rank high among the many motifs that later form the book's expanding map of images, including bluestone walls, "girl-cousins", green hills, gardens, "personages" (rather than characters), and many mentions of a two-storey building. A key memory he recalls and connects beautifully to other images later on, amid the dull stretches, is of a pictorial calendar in which, "I would surely have felt many times before as though a ghostly version of myself moved among the images of persons in one or another illustration."
As a young man, Murnane read a great deal and notes that many family members and friends were joining Catholic religious orders. Murnane did so too, briefly, but later abandoned his faith. Key passages focus on societal pressures Murnane faced as a bachelor and his struggle against the fear that he might never marry. He becomes an intensely lonely and shy young man, fond of certain works by Rilke, Proust, Thomas Merton and St. Thomas Aquinas, but especially Matthew Arnold's poem, The Scholar Gypsy. His family, including a beloved uncle, seem to have no tolerance for his artistic passion. His father died when Murnane was 20. Murnane later married and had children, yet it's touching, and brave, to see him write of himself as "a bachelor who admired girls … from a distance", and a young man hoping only to ever be "a writer of poetry or, perhaps, prose fiction, and also a mystic".
The book does dissolve old notions of what a memoir or an essay can achieve. So there is some credence to the idea Murnane expresses early on that he doesn't want to call his work a novel. Though flawed, this is a book for people who love the idea that books have the accidental potential to unlock a beloved memory, or hasten an understanding of our pasts.
Though Barley Patch is stodgy and forms a punctilious chronicle, it does make a serious advance in fiction's ability to offer a metaphorical tour through the "memory palace" which Murnane directly alludes to late in the book. Such journeys are, though Murnane never states it as such in plain language, can lead to personal revelation and deepen one's sense of hidden richness or spirit in life. And this kind of literary project is intimately bound up in the idea that there is magic in reading and writing, ideas Murnane expresses in a tone of determined effort and reserve: "I can only suppose that I wrote during those 30 and more years so that I could explicate whatever mysteries seemed to require explication in the territory bordered on three sides by the vaguest of my memories and my desires, and on its fourth side by a strangely lit horizon in a remembered reproduction of some or another famous painting. I can only suppose that I wrote fiction for 30 and more years in order to rid myself of certain obligations that I felt as a result of my having read fiction".
Murnane writes that the book is "a necessarily complicated piece of fiction," but ultimately strains the value of self-reflection too far. Barley Patch has 100 pages too much staid, archaic language, and defies all sensible urges to compress irrelevant passages. Experimental prose that maps this same territory and does much better is Argentine author Sergio Chejfec's recently translated novel My Two Worlds, a title that succinctly evokes the elusive prey Murnane was chasing. - Matthew Jakubowski

Whatever expectations prompt us to associate the literature of memory with soaring lyricism and epiphany—think of Proust and his cookie—Gerald Murnane undermines them. Here’s how he introduces the theme of looking through a window on page twenty-five of Barley Patch: “I had never been inside a house of more than one storey, although I had often daydreamed of watching unobserved from an upper window not only persons close by but also distant landscapes.” This anecdote, presented purposely as flat, fizzles without much point, and Murnane gives it to us as the kind of incidental detail we’ll soon forget—except that this sort of thing proceeds to occur repeatedly throughout the novel, each time collecting greater significance and mystery.
Murnane is fond of suggesting that he’s telling you something only because he chanced to recall it. His recurrent desire to look out the window of a two-story house is just the most prominent example: throughout the novel, he braids together seemingly random memories (“a fern protruding through a wall of bluestone,” “a strand of hair lying across the forehead of a female person,” “green bunches of fronds moving under water at unpredictable intervals”) until they splice themselves into significance. Murnane’s method is simplicity itself: he repeats and juxtaposes elements, constantly insinuating through proximity, emphasizing details by ostentatiously pretending they bear little importance. To watch them combine, conjuring substance from mere nearness, is to grasp how ideas become fixed in memory, shimmering with import only for ourselves. - Scott Esposito

Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch begins before itself, before literature. Like all books before it, the book is brought into being by a question. ‘Must I write?’ asks Murnane’s narrator, a man we might confuse with Murnane, but who is nonetheless not him, since Barley Patch is, in its own words, ‘a work of fiction.’ The book is the opposite of an autobiography: instead of issuing from its author, it entails or ‘implies’ him. Not only this, but it implies that all books imply their authors, in the way its own is implied. As such, Barley Patch’s implications appear to touch on a pure form of fiction.
The implied author of Barley Patch, a novelist named Gerald Murnane, reports that ‘in the early autumn of 1991... I gave up writing fiction.’ His opening question, ‘must I write?’ then gives rise to a related one: ‘why had I written?’ The rest of the book is conjured out of these questions, which we might call atomic models of the questions that cause stories to be told. Much of the book is built out of memories, brought together in an associative chain stretching back to the author’s childhood. Each memory calls to mind another memory, and every description suggests second-order descriptions that can’t be described. The book’s subject, says Murnane, consists of ‘what I call for convenience patterns of images, in a place that I call for convenience my mind, wherever it may lie or whatever else it may be a part of.’ A sentence like this deserves to be dealt with carefully. The author’s mind, in this case, lies partly within the work of fiction; after all, he has admitted his own fictionality. Where then can what he calls his ‘network of images’ come from?
A clue is provided by Barley Patch’s break with the rhetoric of authorial ‘imagination.’ This much misused word, Murnane reflects, ‘seems to me connected with antiquated systems of psychology... with drawings of the human brain.’ In refusing itself recourse to this language, Barley Patch retreats beyond reach of romanticism; the book is hallucinatory, but in a way that is different in kind from, say, De Quincey. Yet it also abandons the prearranged reading paths of realist novels, presenting instead a series of scenes set for stories that forget to occur; it progresses by means of digression and detour. So where does it go, now that it can no longer return to the mind of the ‘real’ Murnane?
Murnane the narrator, the one with whom we resolve our route through the book, remarks that ‘a work of fiction is not necessarily enclosed in the mind of its author, but extends on its farther sides into a little-known territory.’ This territory radiates out from the work, taking in the types of experience that envelop it, and that enable our access to it. After all, any work is always already porous, blurred on both sides by the reading and writing minds it implies. And what is implied both is and is not ‘inside’ the work, which is not an object of absolute sanctity, but one which at once includes and is impacted by its being written and read. Indeed, we could conceive of the work as coming together within what Hans-Georg Gadamer describes as a ‘fusion of horizons,’ available via the overlapping encounters that we call reading and writing. Thus, the answer to each of the questions above would be that the work resides in, is brought about by, and is itself a transitional space that those who engage with it enter into.
The space that spreads around and beyond Barley Patch is populated by ‘personages.’ A personage, explains Murnane, is not a ‘character’ so much as a kind of character-in-waiting. In one sense, what comes before any character is the ‘image’ that guides its construction; a glint in the mind’s eye of the writer. But such images are, again, transitional, ‘made up’ just as much by the reader. Reading another author’s story, Murnane recalls how he found himself ‘assigning to the female character... a face that I first saw during the 1990s,’ which is indeed how reading seems to work. A writer cannot fix a face to a character; characters are not completable, which means that other entities will always be glimpsed through their gaps. And if these echoes and ghosts antedate crafted characters, they can’t be pinned down to one point of origin; they emerge from what the work opens onto. I’ve read that face recognition researchers rely on ‘eigenfaces,’ phantasmatic figures derived from the vector space that contains all possible human faces. A ‘personage’ in Murnane’s sense is somewhat similar; a point on a map of the place that precedes characters, and that makes them possible.

This ontology, in which the ‘origin’ of the work evades any vanishing point, is itself figured within Barley Patch by means of a memorised image. The image in question is Claude Lorrain’s Landscape with Samuel Anointing David, the ‘painted backdrop’ to the stage at the Capitol Theatre, where a young Murnane and his schoolmates once took part in a concert. As when Murnane says of his early reading habits that he ‘moved among the characters,’ so, as a child, he dreamt of inhabiting the place that this painting depicted. But Lorrain’s landscape doesn’t merely manifest a set of fictional entities. Instead the painting’s pattern of light implies what Wittgenstein would call a ‘change of aspect.’ As Murnane makes out, it isn’t the scene’s foreground but its background that has somehow become ‘the most brightly lit of the visible zones,’ suggesting that what lies beyond may be ‘more richly illumined still.’ Thus:
I saw myself as travelling from the shadowy foreground into the brightly lit distance, past the bridge and the river and then across the grassy countryside. For a few moments, I would have seen the illustration as other than a patch of painted scenery hanging in a shabby room in the place that I called the world. I would have understood that what I had taken for distant background was brightly lit foreground. The persons around the verandah were of little account. Anyone peering in on them from the darkness behind them mattered even less. I would seem to travel to the end of the grassy countryside, while the light around me intensified, and while I strained to make out the first details of the land that began where the painted places ended.
Wherever art appears to end it begins again; every horizon it reaches reveals a new one. On this level, then, Lorrain’s landscape discloses a diagram of an open, ongoing origin. In the same way, Murnane claims, even when literature seems to lead back to ‘life’ (as when the author of Barley Patch tries and fails to tell the story of his conception) it can’t help but lead to a literature beyond literature. Indeed, every text written or read implies another that lies in the distance, and whatever setting a writer describes suggests to the reader ‘a further region never yet written about.’ Behind the book, a place made of blank pages: ‘a country on the far side of fiction.’
To attempt to locate this country would be to pursue an illusion. Still, such a pursuit might not be meaningless; it may be all that can be accomplished. One clue as to how to characterise this aspect of art is provided by Peter de Bolla, who remarks that what one should ask of a painting is ‘what does this painting know?’ Michael Wood has taken up this thought, which he calls ‘truly haunting,’ in its relation to literature. What, he wonders, might a novel know that its writer and readers don’t? Adding to this, we might even ask what it knows that it itself doesn’t.
What Barley Patch knows is that, in its words, ‘a work of fiction is capable of devising a territory more extensive and more detailed by far than the work itself.’ It would be easy to infer from this that a work’s boundlessness amounts to its ‘essence.’ But Murnane means something more meaningful, which we can relate to works by most writers. Let us claim that a ‘literary device’ is, more often than not, one which makes use of what Wood calls a work’s ‘knowledge.’ In that case, literary language is language that touches upon the tacit dimensions within the work. That is, language is ‘literary’ whenever it interacts with its implicature. Enrique Vila-Matas, for example, says of a story by Hemingway that ‘the most important part does not appear in the text: the secret story of the tale is constructed out of the unsaid, out of implication and allusion.’ Of course, Beckett also called the work of art ‘complete with missing parts.’
If this is true, to assert that literary works open up ‘other countries’ is not to make a metaphysical claim, but to call attention to the way the content of a work exceeds whatever words are read or written. Paul Ricoeur once wrote that when we encounter a work we do not reach ‘inside’ it, as if to recover some isolable core. Rather, ‘the ensemble of references opened up by the text’ results in a ‘world’ which ‘unfolds’ in front of us. This may be so, but Barley Patch also knows that works and their worlds unfold away from what is said and known: that literature is found within its own withdrawal. - David Winters

Words are not important. Or rather, they are only important in as much as a reader can find their way ‘across pages of text’ and into landscapes which they move through by virtue of their own imagining. Murnane assumes the voice of a narrator who writes about fictions that will never be written. He tells us something of the ‘characters, so to call them’, which exist in a book he will never write.
The reader writes themselves into these landscapes and meets these characters. Reader, writer and character all exist ‘in a place on some or other far side of fiction where neither reader nor narrator could lay claim to them’. Which one of us is reader or writer or character at any given moment is unclear. Which are truths and which are constructs of the imagination of the details that make up the stories we engage with is also unclear.
Murnane is sharp and quick and sometimes you may find yourself lost in one or another of these landscapes, but not for long, and the adventure of it is exciting and stimulating. With intriguing characters in provocative settings, Murnane examines the nature of reading and writing and the construction of truths and fictions. And somehow, without the use of metaphor or simile, but simple transparency, he approaches the underside of these concepts, the heart of the matter, the magic of the thing that is storytelling. - Smiljana Glisovic
The Australian
The Harvard Crimson 
m/c reviews


  • The Monthly
  • The National
  • Time's Flow Stemmed
  •  


    Gerald Murnane, Inland. Dalkey Archive Press , 2012. 
     

    "Inland tries to give substance to this obscure originary sin by situating it in an overt work of fiction, and thus -- in Murnane's metaphysical system -- making it real. This invented fiction is a complicated piece of work, so complicated that following its ins and outs will defeat many first-time readers. (...) The emotional conviction behind the later parts of Inland is so intense, the somber lyricism so moving, the intelligence behind the chiseled sentences so undeniable, that we suspend all disbelief" - J.M.Coetzee

    "Murnane’s learned novel (after Barley Patch), published in his native Australia in 1988, goes a long way toward capturing why he’s been dubbed the Australian Italo Calvino. Like the Italian postmodernist, Murnane is a writer of deceptive simplicity, whose work is, first and foremost, about itself." - Publishers Weekly

    "By constantly game-playing and undermining the edifice of his own fiction, Murnane is left with an end product too artificial to have much evocative force. His entirely cerebral Inland, where place-names serve mainly to mislead, remains, in his words, "a ghost of a book". There are shades of Calvino and Kundera in the playfulness, and at moments Inland reads as though translated from a European language. When Murnane does introduce real memories of his Australian childhood, the writing comes marvellously to life." - Helen Harris

    At one point in Inland the narrator admits: 
         I had believed for most of my life that a page of a book is a window. Then I had learned that a page of a book is a mirror.
           In Inland, a writer reflects on and describes his life. His writing and his pages are both windows and mirrors, yet they do not obviously and easily reveal what one expects from windows and mirrors; much of his exercise -- and Inland is presented, in many respects, as a writing-exercise -- is in transforming words, expression, and pages into true windows (clear, with a full view of everything outside) and mirrors (accurate, not distorted reflections).
           The narrator comes across an epigraph in an "unlikely book" (he identifies the book as being by Patrick White, but does not admit to its title -- The Solid Mandala); the epigraph is by Paul Eluard: 
    There is another world but it is in this one.
           Inland very much has this feel of overlapping worlds, with the narrator trying to get at and and understand that other. So also he begins in two other-worlds, artificially bridged, presenting himself as a writer living on an estate on the Great Hungarian Plain (the Great Alfold) whose editor and translator, a woman who: "calls herself Anne Kristaly Gunnarsen", in turn lives in the great American prairie lands, in the unlikely (but real) town of Ideal, South Dakota. She and her husband both work at an Institute of Prairie Studies; she also hopes to fill the still vacant position of the institute's official organ, a publication called Hinterland.
           The narrator writes about writing to his editor (and about not writing to her, and about trying to write to her ...). He also imagines, for example, her husband's jealousy (which, in turn, is surely mainly a way for him to deal with his own jealousy of her husband).
           As throughout, writing is limited and circumscribed; the writer speaks of writing pages, rather than stories or books, and it is the "page of a book" that he sees as window or mirror. In part this can be attributed to a fear of mortality: a completed book is something finished, and suggests also an erasure of sorts of the author behind it: the book can stand on its own. So also he describes himself as declaring: he had been preparing for some time to write on a few pages and to send the pages to the young woman in America, but he was afraid that if he wrote on too many pages someone in America might bind the pages into a book with his name on it, after which the people of America might well suppose he was dead.        This fear of finality -- bizarre though it may seem -- clearly weighs heavily on him, and holds back some of his writing.
           Less than a third of the way through the book the narrator shifts his narrative and himself, to a garden: "between the Hopkins River and Russells Creek", meaning the vicinity of Melbourne, in Murnane's native Australia. Here, suddenly the narrator resembles Murnane far more than the estate-holding Hungarian self who narrated the first few dozen pages of the book: even as the narrator seems to maintain the same voice, his circumstances have become different ones (even as also connections remain between these two versions of himself).
           The opening section of the novel now appears much more like one in which an author has chosen to write through a sort of alter ego -- though this narrator seems little more than a transplanted version of Murnane. As if realizing that it is an unnecessary added layer, Murnane peels the narrative back closer to his own experience. Fundamentally, the narrator does not change, even after his external circumstances change -- but then this novel is also an exploration of such multitudinalities, as:All those empty spaces, reader, are our grasslands. In all those grassy places see and dream and remember and dream of themselves having seen and dreamed and remembered all the men you have dreamed you might have been and all the men you dream you may yet become. And if you are like me, reader, those are very many men, and each of those men has seen many places and dreamed of many places and has turned many pages and stood in front of many bookshelves, and all the places or the dream-places in the lives of all those men are marked on the same map that you and I are keeping in mind, reader.
           (It's hard to avoid some autobiographical speculation here as well: Murnane notoriously does not travel -- but came to learn Hungarian at a relatively advanced age; see his piece, The Angel's Son: Why I learned Hungarian late in life (in which he also notes that: "In 1977, I read for the first time a book titled People of the Puszta. It was an English translation of Puszták népe, by Gyula Illyés, which was first published in Hungary in 1936. The book had such an effect on me that I later wrote a book of my own in order to relieve my feelings"; that book is, of course, Inland, while an earlier work of Murnane's is The Plains).)
           Inland is also a novel of longing -- for girls and women, for the past and youth, and for the wide open spaces of the Hungarian plains or the American prairie or Australia's plains. There is a great deal of reminiscence -- both artificial (some of the scenes in Hungary, for example) and what seem to be more authentic ones from Murnane's own Australian past.
           Inland is framed as a book about writing -- the narrator is constantly writing, or trying to write, or thinking about how to write -- and arguably Murnane (and/or his narrator) clings to that too strongly, using it as an excuse to avoid confronting emotion and feeling more directly. Nevertheless, it does have powerful moments, and does work quite well. - M.A.Orthofer

    As in his 2009 novel Barley Patch, Australia’s Gerald Murnane explores in Inland (1988) the creative writer’s relationship with his or her own text, and, by extension, the precarious and often tenuous relationship between author and reader. While Barley Patch focuses on a writer who has abandoned his craft altogether, and the myriad inducements back to the page made by his calling, Inland is less concerned with the act of creativity (or its disavowal) than with the act of writing. “Pages drifting” becomes a testament to the unnamed narrator’s need to forge—as well as complicate—an intimacy with his reader.
    In spite of the two decades between their composition, the two novels are very much a continuation of each other: in both one finds authorial insertions into fictional characters (“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,” as Murnane puts it in Barley Patch); reflections on growing up in Melbourne and how nature and oppressive religious doctrines shape one’s youth; intertexual allusions and analyses (e.g., both novels invoke Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights at length); and the often illusory distinction between truth and fiction.
    Regularly compared to literary giants like Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett, and Italo Calvino, Murnane’s recurring themes of memory, time, desire, and the individual’s relation to space do indeed owe much to these figures. However, Inland lacks the overarching logic of Proust’s Recherche—a logic that requires a repetition Murnane attempts but at which Inland fails to fully succeed—as well as the linguistic and semiotic playfulness of Beckett or the more precise consideration of the author/reader relationship Calvino sets forth in If on a winter’s night a traveler . . . Murnane admits his debt to Proust in a 2008 interview in Australia’s The Book Show, regarding fictionalizing himself in his works: “the narrator of the fiction that [Proust] wrote is a person that I feel drawn to and I feel most attracted to, so that a version of Proust created the fiction which was a version and not necessarily the whole person.” Whereas Murnane’s invocation of Proust’s technique is generally successful in Barley Patch—whose narrator admits to a “life as a ghostly fictional character” who is “the creation of the reader rather than the writer”—Inland fails to deliver on many levels.
    Inland’s narrator is a writer, although he is adamantly not a reader. He is presumably located in Szolnok County, Hungary, even if later sections place the writer’s childhood in Melbourne County, Australia. Admitting that “the heaviness pressing on me is what first urged me to write,” the narrator then intimates that it was at the urging of his editor (“Write to me. . . . Send me your paragraphs, your pages, your stories of the Great Alföld”) that he has endeavored to produce these erratic pages: “I am writing to my editor. I am writing to a living woman.” What is interesting about the opening section of Inland is that the narrator’s editor, Anne Kristaly Gunnarsen, is also located along fractured geographic lines: born in Transdanubia, Hungary, Gunnarsen now lives in South Dakota and is attached to an institute where “the scientists of prairies” “calculate how many more seeds they must sow before the wasteland will have the look and the feel of virgin prairie.” Related to this is the intriguing but never fleshed out scrutiny of language, translation, the meaning of words in different geographical and linguistic contexts, and the poststructuralist mantra of the (living) death of the author; but instead of an in-depth examination of these points, the narrator only iteratively calls them to the forefront of the text before readily discarding them.
    The sense of living between specific countries is a recurring motif in Inland. It may even be why the narrator initially situates himself in the country in which his editor was born: as he later admits, “I view the scene from several vantage-points” as his writing allows him to dream that he is in the American prairie and therefore able to relate bodily to his addressee. Even more potently, it underscores the narrator’s need to refer to his life inland, “born between . . . two streams,” and yet how “[e]ach place is more than one place” and how “my thinking leads me by way of many places.” The latter is a point that is emphasized by repeated turns to Paul Éluard’s statement: “There is another world but it is in this one.” The reader’s identity changes in this hermetic world from Gunnarsen to her possibly jealous husband, from yet another male colleague of Gunnarsen’s to an unspecified and ungendered reader over whom the narrator exercises control (“Let me tell you, reader, what I consider you to be”), a chain of dissociation that Murnane fails to explain. The narrator confesses to the reader ”that the district between the Moonee Ponds and the Merri,” where he was born, “is a part of the same America that you have always lived in,” a juxtaposition of worlds and alternate “dream-countries” that allow his fantasmatic travels through time and space. While this opens interesting questions about one’s identity being formed by one’s geographical surroundings, Murnane fails to examine it in any depth.
    The repetitive phrases scattered throughout Inland, coupled with a disappointing, stagnant rendering of memory, time, and fantasy, make the novel a tedious read. Even though Murnane’s interest is in geographic borderlands and individuals’ gnawing isolations in their own (and in their imagined) surroundings, neither the reader nor the narrator escape the overemphasized—and thus redundant—middle ground of the inland: “In the pool the green strands of weed are unwavering. No currents or tides disturb the deep water. The pool is far inland, in soil that is mostly clay. If any stream flows into or out of the pool, it is only a trickling stream.” In a very similar way, the narrator’s circuitous and at times senile meanderings are mere “trickling stream[s]” which are unexplored areas of thought and memory that move nowhere except farther inland, to the unvarying space between two streams.
    To be fair, this may be Murnane’s intent: his narrator might be so exiled in his own mind and isolated in his own land (wherever that may be) that the only escape is by means of these meandering narrative threads of real or imagined memories. He may only be able to continue writing by imagining a reader for his as yet unpublished work. This might also be meant to confuse and confound the fluid, changing state of the imagined reader by drawing attention to the writer’s static, anchored, and rather tethered state of mind. However, if this is the case, the length of the novel does not justify these perambulations; Murnane leaves unexamined his Derridean slippages of meaning and identity. For instance, the narrator’s excessive rumination on his first adolescent love, the girl from Bendigo Street, is ambiguously complicated without reflection by the introduction of a girl from Bendigo, Australia. Does this mean something or nothing? One might well read Murnane’s comments on Barley Patch in the interview mentioned above as more relevant to Inland: 
    I sat down to write a piece of 20,000 words called Barley Patch which would make up a book, together with a few other shorter pieces that I’d never had published in a book. That was three years ago, and just a week or two back I finished a 70,000 or 80,000-word book called Barley Patch. In other words, it grew, to my great surprise and delight. It took a long time to finish and it is still being edited. So I wrote a whole book instead of a piece of short fiction, and that means I’ve probably still got another book of short pieces waiting.
    While Barley Patch warrants the extra length, Inland reads too much like a short piece of fiction stretched far beyond its narrative limits. About two-thirds of the way through Inland, the narrator readily admits the novel’s lack of a much-needed structure governing these otherwise fascinating themes: “But while I write I cannot be sure of coming to the end. . . . But I am in danger of writing on endless pages.” Frustratingly, Murnane neglects to shape these memories and fantasies.
    Related by the fictional writer in a manner that is less stream of consciousness than chaotic, Inland offers much evidence that a novel of fractured identity and isolation needs some organization. It might usefully be compared to Edouard Levé’s work, which is similarly interested in random trains of thought and memory; unlike Murnane, however, Levé’s work is governed by an overarching structure that is as much a part of, just as it is helped by, the use of a poetic rhythm and repetition. In Levé’s Autoportrait, what seems at first to be a completely random sequence of confessions eventually becomes structured by Levé’s ache for an intimate textual relationship with his reader. Autoportrait is a novel that centralizes a writer’s fractured sense of identity (much like Inland), and yet it is one that succeeds in its project of performing alienation more succinctly than Murnane’s novel by balancing chaos and order: in the words of Emily Dickinson, in Inland one finds “Much Madness” and very little “divinest Sense.” -
     
    “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.” —Gerald Murnane, Velvet Waters
    Gerald Murnane has never left Australia and rarely even left the state of Victoria, but his fiction is widely traveled. In his fifth novel, Inland, available for the first time in the U.S. from Dalkey Archive, a writer sits alone in a manor house among books he doesn’t read, and pages he struggles to write, and “travels” as far as the American plains, the Hungarian Alfold, and the Australian interior. Places are overlain with other places, assigned unspecific or fantastical-sounding names, tableau settings, or two different periods of time. Many of the vignettes one encounters in Inland are taken from Murnane’s own childhood, and transplanted, in whole or in part, into different settings, with different characters. Walking the border between autobiography and fiction in this way, the book is an exploration of memory’s relation to time, time to place, and truth to language, fiction, and dreams.
    A few days after finishing Inland, when I had moved onto Wuthering Heights in anticipation of writing about their respective uses of landscape, my mother called to tell me that my grandfather’s body was “shutting down.” He would likely die before the end of the day Saturday, and it was currently Friday. My grandparents lived in a semi-rural suburb of Cleveland called Pepper Pike, in a house surrounded by rolling lawns and woods I liked to explore as a child. I had bought a ticket to see my grandparents later in the month, when they would celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary. But within minutes, I was on the phone changing the dates of my trip, and within hours, was departing JFK.
    Asked if he would attend the ceremony should he be awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in fiction, Murnane responded that, “There’s no question of me going . . . I’ve never been on an airplane, and I wouldn’t get on one for anything.” I sat near the window on a CR7, looking over the right wing, next to a woman who wanted to talk when I didn’t. There were maybe ten other people on my tiny jet, which seemed to confirm my suspicion that Delta reserves these small planes for medical passengers. I’d forgotten to pack Wuthering Heights, so was stuck with the dry and unemotional Rhetoric of Fiction by William C. Booth, a text that heavily informed Murnane’s fiction. In his final years, my grandfather read Alexander McCall Smith’s First Ladies Detective Agency series over and over with little exception. He loved the moral rightness of its characters.
    Inland opens with its narrator writing in the library of a manor house, in an unspecified Hungarian village, using a language he calls “heavy-hearted Magyar.” He writes to an editor who lives in the American Midwest, whom he has never met but frequently imagines in vivid scenes that form a large chunk of the book’s narrative. Scenes like these separate the narrative of the book from its plot using various framing devices, combined into a collage that calls attention to the book as something that is composed. (The narrator “writes on” pages, as opposed to simply “writing” them because Murnane is concerned with surfaces, appearances, signifiers.) Perhaps the most obvious example is a false obituary notice that he sends to his editor. “I have tried to insert something of myself into the passage below,” he says ironically. 
    There died quietly some little time ago, at his family seat, in Szolnok County on the Great Alfold, a gentleman who preserved during his lifetime spent almost wholly in the seclusion of his ancestral library, or in solitary walks through the extensive park and grounds laid out by his grandfather, a secret so burdensome that no writer of fiction would dare implant it in the heart of any one of his characters for fear of ridicule.
    The notice goes on to include two long quotations from people interviewed about the deceased who, it becomes apparent, is not necessarily the narrator or any other specific person, but—Murnane seems to be saying, like the summary of any life—is a work of fiction, the raw material for which is culled from the memories of the deceased and those left behind. One such passage, from an unnamed “farm-servant and member of a family that later found its way to America” (a vague specificity characteristic of Murnane) is a page-and-a-half long and constitutes half of the obituary. Anyone who has read an obituary knows that, except in the case of a celebrity’s, they are not this long, nor do they include sentimental qualifiers, nor even a creative adjective, nor do they include quotations. There is seldom a description of the manner in which a person died, or even much description of the manner in which a person lived. In fact, they are frustratingly terse, specific, unemotional. My grandfather’s read, 
    GERARD SANFORD ABRAHAM GERARD, age 89, died August 8, 2012. World War II Army veteran, President of City Barrel and Drum Company. Beloved husband of Jean (nee Rabinovitz); devoted father of Darrel Gerard (Maureen Shields) of UT, Eric Gerard (Patricia) of FL and Wendy Gerard (Scott Ozer) of CA; dear brother of Betty Miller and Lou Gerard (both deceased); loving grandfather of Sarah Gerard (David Formentin), Chandler Gerard-Reimer and Wesley Gerard-Ozer; especially loved uncle of Renee Saxon-Everette, Michael Saxon, Dr. Arlen Rollins and Susan Rollins; great uncle of Dr. Aaron Rollins.
    The first use of Gerard is not my typo; it appears this way on the Plain Dealer website. The obituary ran for two days in print. On the first day, my husband’s name was Daniel, and my cousin’s last name was Reiner. I guess the person transcribing it, like Murnane, was not so concerned with fact.
    In the novel’s opening passage, the narrator says that “this heaviness pressing on me is perhaps the weight of all these words I still have not written. And the heaviness pressing on me is what first urged me to write. Or the heaviness pressing on me could be the weight of all the days I still have not lived.” There are many writers in my family: my father, my uncle, my aunt, my cousin, and my grandfather. You’ve probably not heard of any of us, but my grandfather would have told you about an episode of Hawaii Five-O he wrote but was not given credit for. There is a dresser in the basement full of typewritten short stories and scripts he abandoned after the incident. He loved to read, especially mysteries. He also loved film. Pride and Prejudice was his most recent favorite—the one with Keira Knightley. He loved storytelling. He loved to tell his own stories, over and over. He was very proud of my writing, though I don’t think he shared it with anyone. For the first two days of my trip, when he was still slipping in and out of consciousness, I’m not sure he knew who I was.
    Cancer is a slow, ravaging disease, a pestilence over the body’s landscape. Landscape is a product of the mind; a fiction; a collage of remembered places, or in Murnane’s case, imagined places. My grandfather is a collage of memory. His body is memory. The plague over the landscape of his body is memory. Murnane’s landscapes are pieced together from places he’s seen and some he’s never seen. Those places he’s seen are mostly remembered from childhood; those places he hasn’t are studied, imagined. He loves maps. He loves to create fiction that is like a map in the way images connect across distances, creating patterns: the colors red, green, and white; the appearance of books; the wind; a window; a mirror; a young girl. He loves experimenting with images in different contexts, imbuing them with new meanings. “I learned that no thing in the world is one thing,” says Inland’s narrator, “that each thing in the world is two things at least, and probably many more than two things.” Inland’s images, removed from their original contexts, lend an out-of-time feeling to whatever scene they’re in, the way lox will always make me feel like I’m eating with my grandfather. Murnane brings his focus on signifiers, finally, around to the body. 
    Your body—whether or not the belly protrudes or the hair on the head of it is turning grey, and whether the hand in front of the belly is writing or at rest or busy at something else—your body is the least part of you. Your body is a sign of you, perhaps: a sign marking the place where the true part of you begins.
    This is comforting to me.
    Naturally, Murnane’s interest in signifiers extends to include an interest in language. He relies heavily on the trust we place in text and draws attention to it in the conceit of Inland. We know that the narrator writes in a heavy-hearted Magyar, but we read his work in English. His editor sends him “translations” of the names of prairie flowers, and presumably those translations are then translated again so that we can read them. Embedded in the story, all around the narrator, are books whose language, we so easily forget, is heavy-hearted Magyar. Likewise, the headstones he sees in the graveyard he likes to visit, in the end, are etched with what must be Magyar. (In the Jewish tradition, the grave does not receive a headstone until a year has passed.) Oftentimes, the narrator hesitates to specify the name of a place or person, giving his reader, instead, a sort of riddle. For example: “From the same notice I learned the name after her marriage of the girl I once talked easily with. The name in fact was my own name,” which the reader doesn’t know. We are left, at all turns, guessing at the decipherability, the reliability, of the text.
    It is not unusual for a person, when they’re dying, to become anxious, restless, or sleepless, to hallucinate or have visions, or to have difficulty speaking. Often, we weren’t sure whether my grandfather was calling for the nurse or his deceased cousin who shared her name, talking to his mother who died decades ago, or asking to be turned over, calling someone’s name in a dream or in this world, or just calling out from pain. He worked, or thought that he worked, until the day he died.
    Some things I remember about my grandfather are things that I’ve seen, such as the time he traveled (like Murnane, he hated traveling) to visit us in Florida. I was three. We went to Clearwater Beach. I remember clearly someone telling me not to walk in the sand spurs, but I did anyway and they stung the bottoms of my feet. I screamed and cried, and my grandfather carried me to the water, and washed my feet off, and carried me back to the towel. At least, I think that’s what happened.
    Some things I remember about my grandfather are things I’ve never seen, like Inland’s narrator has never seen his editor in America, or her home on the Plains, or the company she works for—the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute of Prairie Studies, a place we believe exists in the world of the story because we’re told that it does. Like Inland’s narrator has never seen the woman he contacts to find out about the “girl-woman” he once loved on Bendingo Street, but who he knows lived nearby. I remember my grandfather’s service in the Army, when he was stationed in the Pacific and put on malaria control, and contracted dengue fever from a mosquito. He was laid up for weeks in the island’s only hospital. I remember the night he met my grandmother at a Valentine’s Day dance thrown by the local temple. He asked her to dance and she said no, that he was too short, that she liked tall men. These are things I have to imagine, but feel are true, like the narrator believes the wind on the Plains is true.
    Last March, while my grandfather weakened with cancer, I took my husband’s Flip camera to Cleveland and spent four days interviewing my grandparents. I asked my grandfather questions about his childhood, his views on God and religion, his relationship with my grandmother, their children, his favorite books, his favorite movies. I remember that my grandfather loved The King’s Speech, but didn’t like Black Swan because it didn’t make sense to him. I remember how empathic he was despite the terrible pain he was in. I remember that, when I asked him what he was reading, he said he’d been reading something until three or four nights before, but that “some of that stuff is violent. Not the violence in the story, but the characters. It’s terrible to know that people are like that. I couldn’t sleep afterwards.” I remember that he didn’t like Dennis Lehane’s novels.
    To say that literature and life are separate is to say that literature happens somewhere outside us, that somehow we think about literature in a place outside our own minds. This is impossible. The places where we think about, feel, and live literature are the same places where we think about and feel and live our own lives. The events of literature and the events of our lives are mixed up together, inseparably.
    I had found a copy of Wuthering Heights in the Cleveland airport and read it throughout the week while my grandfather was dying. “Catherine’s face was just like a landscape,” 
    shadows and sunshine flitting over it, in rapid succession. But the shadows rested longer and the sunshine was more transient, and her poor little heart reproached itself for even that passing forgetfulness of its cares. 
    Inland’s narrator doesn’t read the books in his library, preferring instead to look at the spines (a choice word) and imagine the spaces that open up behind them, calling, first, the page of a book a window and later, more accurately, a mirror. Towards the end of Inland, however, he gets up from his table and takes Wuthering Heights off the shelf. 
    [W]hile I read it aloud I dreamed of myself seeing headstones of graves with grass-stems swaying near by and clusters of tiny flower-heads among the grass and in the background a view of indistinct moorland.
    While I watched my grandfather die, I imagined his hipbones and knees as hills that were growing while he grew thinner. It rained the night before he died and tiny brooks crossed our path as the undertakers carried my grandfather out of the house on a stretcher. It rained on the day of his funeral. I was a pallbearer, and bore the weight of his body in the casket from the funeral home to the hearse and from the hearse to the grave. Inland’s narrator visits his cemetery in the last scene. 
    While I stared I began to weep. I wept in a way that I have never wept for any person I have met during my life. I wept for only a few moments but violently, in the way that I weep sometimes for a man or a woman in a book that I have just read to its end. - Sarah Gerard

    Jim Murdoch: Inland: common ground between Gerald Murnane and Samuel Beckett


    ANZ LitLovers LitBlog
    Deucekindred’s Blog 
    [net]textualities 
    Publishers Weekly


    Gerald Murnane, History of Books. Giramondo, 2012.

    read it at Google Books

    IN 1982 a landmark event took place in Australian letters. Norstrilia Press, a small venture associated with science fiction publishing, produced The Plains by then 43-year-old Melburnian Gerald Murnane, whose two previous books, Tamarisk Row (1974) and A Lifetime on Clouds (1976), were more recognisable as conventional novels than this new work.
    The Plains, while extending some of the concerns of the books that came before it, might best be regarded as a meta-novel, a prose text that appears like a novel while offering a commentary on the nature and art of the novel. It is an abstract commentary on the nature and place of landscape in Australia. It is like rural Patrick White with the people removed. It is a tour de force.
    Barry Oakley has suggested the only writer Murnane can be compared with is Jorge Luis Borges. Perhaps he recalls rather some amalgam of Italo Calvino and Samuel Beckett. All of Murnane's six subsequent works of fiction would repeat and extend the project of The Plains. Australian literature would never be the same again. Murnane had initiated a paradigm shift.
    Poet Les Murray once doffed his cap to Murnane in these terms: "He's a really literary writer. There's a degree of shonk about most of us, but not him." Murray and Murnane's names have been yoked in the press because both have been rumoured to be hopefuls for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2010, British bookmaker Ladbrokes had Murray at 16-1 and Murnane at 13-1. Neither won - the laurel went to Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa - and while such considerations doubtless smack of vulgar gossip, they at least serve to illustrate that Murnane is known beyond Australia's shores. He has been translated into French and Swedish and a Hungarian translation of The Plains (recall the potent Hungarian plain in Miklos Jancso's film The Round-Up) is said to be appearing this year.
    As is the fate of the literary writer, Murnane may not be all that well-known in Australia. Yet he has been saluted by his peers, being a recipient of the Patrick White Prize (1999), a special award in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards (2007), an Australia Council emeritus award (2008), and the Melbourne Prize for Literature (2009).
    It is significant that his lamp has been kept bright by small, committed publishers, such as McPhee Gribble and, for some years now, Giramondo.
    Murnane's new, four-part work, A History of Books, has a mesmeric novella of that title as its principal section. The book's epigraph is, significantly, from Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Significantly because 30 years ago Melbourne's Scripsi set was comparing the two writers: "Murnane writes a prose shaped by Proust's," wrote Peter Craven. And in The Plains Murnane spoke of "essays known as remembrances of the misremembered".
    Which makes it all the more curious that a section of this new book, which focuses on the unnamed Proust's derisive treatment at the hands of Olympian deities, ends: 
    . . . he or she, the god or goddess, hurried back to the crowded dining room and there blurted out that the person at the door claimed to be the author of an enormous work of prose fiction although he seemed no more than an asthmatic little poofter from a place called Paris.
    Murnane's fiction has always been concerned not with representation but with interpretation, not with mimesis but with hermeneutics. His oeuvre consists of a set of variations on a radically limited number of obsessive concerns.
    His texts repeatedly develop sign systems that may be read as analogues of the compulsion to strive to create patterns that will stave off the nothingness that may surround us. In Landscape with Landscape (1985) he approvingly quotes Anatole France: "The only exact knowledge consists of the titles and publication dates of books."
    A History of Books is composed of 29 sections exploring the relation between reading and writing, each section beginning with the memory of a book that has left an image in the writer's mind.
    The "writer" may or may not be Murnane: 
    he admired the author mentioned for having written the neglected masterpiece in such a way that no reader or commentator had been able to decide whether the work was fiction or autobiography or a blend of the two.
    While none of the 29 works alluded to is named in the body of the text, some are eminently recognisable, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony being one such. Indeed, a friend cannily suggested A History of Books might be subtitled Murnane's Enigma Variations. The Mahony section is introduced, or the writer's account of it is qualified, thus: 
    In the following report, each noun or pronoun refers to an image-person or an image-place or an image-thing; each verb refers to an image-action; and each modifier refers to an image-quality or an image-condition.
    This is in the service of an epistemological scrupulousness, if it lacks loveliness. Hyphens are legion in A History of Books. They may not win Murnane new readers, though Murnane's characteristic repetitions will delight the converted. After all, as Gertrude Stein observed, "composition is repetition". - Don Anderson

    If you have not read him, you should do so. He is a staggering original…’
    So says Peter Craven in his review at The Age/SMH. The judges for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award concurred, and have shortlisted A History of Books for the 2012 prize.  This makes the task of choosing a winner doubly difficult because the shortlist is a strong one this year, and while in my opinion Murnane’s book is the stand-out contender, it raises the contemporary question of ‘accessibility’.  A book which defies conventional ideas about what fiction can be is pitched against five other  novels which – while equally worthwhile reading – are written in more conventional form and are certainly less demanding.  It was obvious at last year’s award ceremony that there was a clear agenda of jazzing up the awards and giving them a higher profile, which implies ‘accessibility’.   Even if that were not so, it’s been a very long time since a challenging, non-conventional book has won a major prize in Australia…
    I wonder if that would change if Murnane won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I’m not the only one who thinks he is a strong contender.  (You can read my thoughts about that here.)
    The first thing I should say in discussing A History of Books is that I should have read Barley Patch (2009) first.  I bought that as soon as it came out, but I’ve been saving it because there aren’t many books by this author and I wanted to stretch them out.  So, although I’m told that A History of Books is a continuation of the ‘exploration of the relationship between writing and reading which [Murnane] undertook in Barley Patch’  I’m reading this book as many readers will, without having read its predecessor.  A History of Books was the only one of the Premier’s Prize shortlist that I hadn’t read, and I wanted to read it before the prize is announced on October 16th.
    My first impression when I started reading this book (NB I’m not calling it a novel, though novel it certainly is) was that Murnane lost no time in deflating any ideas I might have had about being well-read.  I knew before I began that this meditation on books and reading involved some authors that I’d read: James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Joseph Conrad, Herman Hesse, Elias Canetti and John Steinbeck, so I was expecting to identify allusions to their work.  But the very first book he alludes to is one of the Latin magic-realists, and although I’ve read a couple of them, I, like Murnane, hadn’t liked them much (though for entirely different reasons).  Even so, it’s a kind of torture not knowing which one he means, but I know I’ll never finish reading the book if I Google around trying to identify the subject of this passage: 
    None of the disputes between the man and the woman had been resolved when he and she became a male and a female jaguar, or it may have been a male and a female hummingbird or a male and a female lizard. (p3)
    Is this image from one of the books I’d read?  Or has Murnane referenced some obscure author that I’ve never heard of?
    There ismight be an answer to this, but readers should discover that for themselves.
    Murnane can be a playful author, and it was only a few pages later that I found that the narrator (who might be Murnane himself, or might not be) has the same problem of not being able to remember what he’s read.  (Or so he says). His wife has facilitated a two-year sabbatical so that he can write the work of fiction he has longed to write.  A year has gone by, and although he’s been a dutiful house-husband-and-father while she’s been at work, he’s spent most of his year reading, seeking ‘the secret known only to writers of fiction‘ and discarding his few futile attempts to write something original. Pondering a book by a Greek-born author (one that was written  in French ten years before he was born by an author better-known for his surrealist paintings) all the narrator can remember is an image.  Not a word of the text.  (Not like the Melbourne drummer Alan Browne, who can and does quote great slabs of Proust during his performances).
    If it can be said what Murnane’s preoccupation in this book might be, he is interested in the way he remembers visual images from his lifetime of reading.  Not text, not words.  And in discussing this, to different the real from the image, he prefaces his image people, places and events with the word ‘image’ thus: 
    Noticeable in the image-room were a glass-fronted image-bookcase and an image-table where a famous image-man, aged perhaps sixty years and more, sat writing.  The remembering man could remember, at the age of sixty and more years, hardly any of the words of the report of the interview mentioned but he remembered still a statement to the effect that all the fiction written by the famous writer was part of his effort to rediscover the faraway world of his Jansenist, provincial childhood. (p74)
    I had a chuckle over this teasing allusion …
    I felt absurdly pleased with myself when I immediately recognised two scraps from James Joyce’s Ulysses! (It’s from Circe, when Bantam Lyons expects Bloom to prophesy the winner of the St Leger.  (Lyons had interpreted an earlier comment from Bloom as a tip for a horse called Throwaway, and it won).  It was easy to recognise this allusion because Murnane meant us to: this chapter mimics a play-script, and of course Murnane would remember this bit of text from Ulysses, because it’s about one of his major preoccupations, horse-racing).
    I was enchanted by a strange little snippet about the gods in heaven which reminded me of the playful way John Banville depicted his gods in The Infinities.  Murnane’s gods are jocular beings, with no pretensions: 
    The reader may have expected to read that the divine personages spent their days in vast galleries contemplating magnificent paintings and sculpture, in concert halls listening to sublime music, or in libraries reading profound literature.  In the heaven described here, no art galleries or concert halls or libraries existed.  No one painted or sculpted or composed music or wrote literature because no one was urged to find so-called meaning behind so-called appearances.  Where the everyday was the ultimate, there was nothing to do but play.  (p111)
    They do have a library, though it’s full of ‘dry reading indeed‘ and it’s in when they’re the library that the gods hear knocking.  They go on doing what they do: going to the races, riding to hounds, watching sport, and playing board or card games.  The knocking continues, so the gods amuse themselves by taking bets – not about the identity of the knocker, but about the knocker’s ‘field of endeavour‘.   They bet on whether he is a founder of religion, a composer of music, or an artist.  Hardly anybody bets that it’s a writer. Eventually when all the bets are settled, one of the gods goes down to the door to find out, but leaves ‘the famous French author of a long work of fiction‘ on the doorstep…
    The first book actually mentioned by name is Das Glasperlenspiel. I did Google that, because although I don’t speak German, I was pretty sure that it had something to do with marbles: the game the narrator describes as being on the dust-jacket of this book is very like the game played by Clement Killeaton in Tamarisk Row.  (The boy pretends his marbles are horses in a race).  Das Glasperlenspiel is one by Herman Hesse that I haven’t read, it’s called The Glass Bead Game but the synopsis in Wikipedia tells me the game is played by 
    an austere order of intellectuals with a twofold mission: to run boarding schools for boys, and to nurture and play the Glass Bead Game, whose exact nature remains elusive and whose devotees occupy a special school within Castalia known as Waldzell. The rules of the game are only alluded to, and are so sophisticated that they are not easy to imagine. Playing the game well requires years of hard study of music, mathematics, and cultural history. Essentially the game is an abstract synthesis of all arts and sciences. It proceeds by players making deep connections between seemingly unrelated topics.
    Fascinating, eh?  I ordered this book from Fishpond straight away. (A couple of books I already have on my TBR have also scuttled up the pile).
    While this is fun, I know that playing literary trivial pursuit is not the point of this fiction.    Murnane wants his readers to recognise some of the books he’s alluding to, and he creates deliberate confusion with others.  You can Google the slab of John Crane’s poetry but you don’t have to do this (or to be familiar with his poetry) to notice that the adjacent stanzas by Christopher Brennan are in a completely style – even though the juxtaposition might lure a reader into thinking that they too are by Crane.  I think this is done deliberately to remind readers that (like everyone else) Murnane has an original mind and that the bits and pieces in his memory of images are bound to be different to anyone else’s.  It becomes a case of read the book, go-with-the-flow and never mind which author or book he might be meditating on.  Leave that to Murnane’s biographers…
    After a while, the book becomes mesmerizing.  The reader is gently drawn into pondering the ideas of the narrator and thence into other literary excursions: I found myself trawling my memories of books, discovering that I too tended to have images of these books rather than memories of the text.  Now I wonder, does everyone do the same?
    And it just so happens that I only recently mentioned an image that I had remembered incorrectly when referencing a book by Kafka.  I wonder if, in a lifetime of reading and re-reading, Murnane’s visual memory has played tricks on him too?
    I’ve only finished the first part of this book, the part entitled  A History of Books.  There are also three shorter pieces called ‘As It Were a Letter’, ‘The Boy’s Name was David‘ and ‘Last Letter to a Niece‘.  The blurb tells me that these pieces are about the writer’s search for an ideal world, an ideal sentence, and an ideal reader.  I’m a bit nervous about reading this last one because I expect to fall well short!
    This is a delicious book which deserves re-reading.  After I’ve read Barley Patch… - Jennifer Mills
      
    If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact. – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
    When you read you forget. You’re forgetting right now. Reading is an act of forgetting but there are levels. Whilst reading you temporarily forget the outside world and become absorbed in the text before your eyes but as your eyes scan the page in front of you, you also almost instantaneously begin to forget what you’ve read. You carry the gist of what you’re read from page to page but if asked to remember even a single sentence from the preceding page most would be hard pressed to do so. We let go so easily.
    Memory is an issue with me and so any texts that deal with memory issues are always of more interest to me than others and so from the very beginning of this book I found myself empathising with the narrator—not to be confused with the author although they could well be twins—and his inability to remember very much about any of the books he’s read throughout his life. When I first joined Goodreads I decided to go through the books in my cupboard, the old ones I’ve been carting around for decades, and enter them in the system to start me off and I was appalled to note how little I could dredge up from the depths of my mind. I had, for example, read four books by Nabokov when in my early twenties and could remember nothing bar the titles.
    In ‘The Boy’s Name Was David’ the third of the four pieces of fiction in this book—Murnane doesn’t talk about his writing in terms of novels or stories—we’re introduced to a man who was for a time an English teacher and he makes an important point about reading, at least according to Joyce:
    As a teacher, he had been fanatical in urging his students to think of their fiction, of all fiction, as consisting of sentences. A sentence was, of course, a number of words or even a number of phrases or clauses, but he preached to his students that the sentence was the unit that yielded the most amount of meaning in proportion to its extent. If a student in class claimed to admire a piece of fiction or even a short passage of fiction, he would ask that student to find the sentence that most caused the admiration to arise. Anyone claiming to be puzzled or annoyed by a passage of fiction was urged by him to find the sentence that had first brought on the puzzlement or the annoyance. Much of his own commentary during classes consisted of his pointing out sentences that he admired or sentences that he found faulty. At least once each year, he told each class an anecdote that he had remembered from a memoir of James Joyce. Someone had praised to Joyce a recent novel. Joyce had asked why the novel was so impressive. The answer came back that the style was splendid, the subject powerful…Joyce would not listen to such talk. If a book of prose fiction was impressive, the actual prose should have impressed itself on the reader’s mind so that he could afterwards quote sentence after sentence. [cursive mine]
    I managed to remember the first three sentences of this article in their entirety. Ask me in an hour’s time and it’ll be a very different story.
    What happens when we read? No doubt whole books have been written on the subject although this article is interesting when it comes to the subject of fiction. It’s not something we think about. We pick up a book, locate where we left off and begin. But begin doing what? When we put down a book we say we’ve finished it but what does that mean? Samuel Johnson noted: “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.” He meant something different though; he believed that a reader adds to the written word and oftentimes when a book fails the lack is with the reader and not its author: I can tell you here and now that I was too young to appreciate the Nabokovs I read as a young man.
    Murnane opens the first work of fiction in this book with a famous quote: 
    After a certain age our memories are so intertwined with one another that what we are thinking of, the book we are reading, scarcely matters any more. We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal’s Pensées in an advertisement for soap. MARCEL PROUST, Remembrance of Things Past
    I’m not sure what age Proust was thinking about but I believe—and I suspect Murnane would agree—that this process begins at a very early age. Images are a big thing with Murnane and he gets a great deal of satisfaction from discovering “at least once during the writing of [a piece of] fiction a connection between two or more images that had been for long in his mind but had never seemed in any way connected.” In the second piece of fiction in this book, ‘As It Were a Letter’, he talks about a time when he was eleven: 
    If [he] had been asked at the time what were the chief dangers of the modern world, he would have described in detail two images that were often in his mind. The first image was of a map he had seen a year or so previously in a Melbourne newspaper as an illustration to a feature article about the damage that would be caused if an Unfriendly Power were to drop an atomic bomb on the central business district of Melbourne. Certain black-and-white markings in the diagram made it clear that all persons and buildings in the city and the nearest suburbs would be turned to ash or rubble. Certain other markings made it clear that most persons in the outer suburbs and the nearer country districts would later die or suffer serious illness. And other markings again made it clear that even persons in country districts rather distant from Melbourne might become ill or die if the wind happened to blow in their direction. Only the persons in remote country districts would be safe.
    The second of the two images mentioned above was an image that often occurred in the mind of the founder of Grasslands although it was not a copy of any image he had seen in the place he called the real world. This image was of one or another suburb of Melbourne on a dark evening. At the centre of the dark suburb was a row of bright lights from the shop windows and illuminated signs of the main shopping street of the suburb. Among the brightest of these lights were those of the one or more picture theatres in the main street. Details of the image became magnified so that the viewer of the image saw first the brightly lit picture theatre with a crowd milling in the foyer before the beginning of one or another film and next the posters on the wall of the foyer advertising the film about to be shown and after that the woman who was the female star of the film and finally the neckline of the low-cut dress worn by that woman. This image was sometimes able to be multiplied many times in the mind of the viewer, who would then see images of darkened suburb after darkened suburb and in those suburbs picture theatre after picture theatre with poster after poster of woman after woman with dress after dress resting low down on breasts after breasts.
    This is very typical of Murnane. When he reads he is completely absorbed with the images that appear in his mind, some generated by the text obviously enough but others that are responses to what he’s been reading. Fiction is very important to him. It’s the environment that’s most suitable for the kind and level of thinking he gets the most out of. He notes that when a young man he actually “preferred to the visible world a space enclosed by words denoting a world more real by far.”
    In ‘The Boy’s Name Was David’ he talks about a story written by one of his students. As an old man he’s been looking back on the various stories he’s read and graded over the years—over three thousand—and realises that he can remember very little of any of them. So he devises a kind of game, a race if you will—the winner of which will receive the imaginary “Gold Cup of Remembered Fiction”—to see which one he can recall most clearly: 
    The fifth contender was a sentence: the opening sentence of a piece of fiction. A few vague images hung about the man’s mind whenever he heard the sentence in his mind, but they meant little to him. The man was not even sure whether the images had arisen when he had first read the fiction that followed on from the opening sentence or whether he had imagined them, so to speak, at a much later date. The man seemed to have forgotten almost all of the fiction except for the opening sentence: The boy’s name was David.[…] 
    The boy’s name was David. The man, whatever his name was, had known, as soon as he had read that sentence, that the boy’s name had not been David. At the same time, the man had not been fool enough to suppose that the name of the boy had been the same as the name of the author of the fiction, whatever his name had been. The man had understood that the man who had written the sentence understood that to write such a sentence was to lay claim to a level of truth that no historian and no biographer could ever lay claim to. There was never a boy named David, the writer of the fiction might as well have written, but if you, the Reader, and I, the Writer, can agree that there might have been such a boy so named, then I undertake to tell you what you could never otherwise have learned about any boy of any name. [cursive mine]
    Many times throughout these texts Murnane pauses to remind the reader that what they’re reading is a work of fiction. For example: 
    Since the previous sentence is part of a piece of fiction, the reader will hardly need to be reminded that the man mentioned in that sentence and in earlier sentences is a character in a work of fiction and that the newspaper clipping and the note mentioned in some of those sentences are likewise items in a piece of fiction.
    There is at least one good reason for this. More than any other writer Murnane draws on his own life experiences as a basis for his fiction and it’s tempting to imagine what you’re reading is autobiographical in nature—it is undoubtedly semi-autobiographical—but the simple fact is that even if it were wholly autobiographical and as accurate an accounting as he was capable of producing it would still be fiction: we fictionalise it as we read it. I have never been to Melbourne. I’ve seen a few photos and some films (I watched a documentary about Murnane, Words and Silk – The Real and Imaginary Worlds of Gerald Murnane, which featured the city, for example) but the bottom line is that Melbourne might as well be Narnia as far as I’m concerned. Murnane exists in my imagination in exactly the same way and I exist in his imagination; I have a copy of Barley Patch signed to me and he got the city I live in wrong. As Murnane puts it, in A Million Windows, “Today, I understand that so-called autobiography is only one of the least worthy varieties of fiction extant.”
    For me the most captivating piece of writing in this volume was the opening one, ‘A History of Books’, which consists of twenty-nine sections that trace his reading throughout the years and how little he finds he can remember of any of those books. It also looks at why he was reading. He’d decided he wanted to be a writer—he’d even taken two years off work letting his wife support him so that he could have the space to tackle this ambitious project—but what he discovers as he reads (and as he attempts to write) is what kind of writer he is. One like no other. Simply telling stories was not for him. He felt “as though writing fiction was too easy. It seemed to [him] the easiest of tasks to report image-deeds done by image-persons in image-scenery or even to report the image-thoughts of the image-persons.” Hence his unique approach to writing.
    If this is the first book by him it will take you a while to get into step with him. He writes with great precision but also manages to be incredibly vague at times to. A simple example: 
    His surname ended with the fifteenth letter of the English alphabet.
    I bet you just counted the letter on your fingers. It’s what I did. I didn’t even have to think about it. But you can’t say he’s not been precise. And he often directs the reader’s attention to things he’s written previously (or is about to relate) with comments like “the young woman mentioned in the first sentence of the previous paragraph”, “[t]he man aged sixty and more years had never read any sort of report of the fictional events reported in the previous five paragraphs of this work of fiction” and “[e]ach of the four previous paragraphs reports details of a central image surrounded by a cluster of lesser images that had arisen from several sentences of one or another piece of fiction.”
    At the end of the book the publishers provide a list of the authors of the books referred to in ‘A History of Books’ are believed to include. I would discourage you from checking it until you’ve finished the piece. That said they don’t mention the actual books he’s talking about. Some were obvious—he provides the occasional quote which you can easily google—and he even names one (although he does so in the original German) but a number are very obscure. It seems as a young man he and his friends were attracted to esoterica:
    The man and his friends liked to seek out and to read little-known books of fiction, especially books translated from foreign languages, and then to announce to one another that he or she had discovered a neglected masterpiece, one of the two or three greatest books of fiction that he or she had read.
    Here’s an example: 
    An image of a man and an image of a young woman appeared at the base of a tall image-cliff. These images appeared in the mind of a certain young man while he was sitting beside a campfire at the base of a tall cliff and trying to explain to a certain young woman what he remembered having read in certain passages of a certain book that he considered, so he told the young woman, a neglected masterpiece of English literature. Since the young man spoke as though the image-persons were actual persons, they will be thus described in the following paragraphs.
    The image-cliff was not a bare rocky cliff such as might have overlooked a bay or a seacoast but a steep embankment overgrown with grass and bushes and forming one side of something that was reported in the so-called neglected masterpiece as being a dingle, which word the young man had never looked for in any dictionary, preferring not to have to call into question the images that had first appeared in his mind while he was reading a work of fiction. At the base of the cliff was mostly level grass shaded, at intervals, by clumps of bushes. Near one such clump a small tent was pitched. Perhaps ten paces away, near another clump, a second tent was pitched. About halfway between the two tents, a kettle of water hung above a campfire. One of the tents belonged to the man mentioned and the other tent to the young woman mentioned in the first sentence of the previous paragraph. Both the man and the young woman were noticeably tall, and the young woman had red hair.
    The man and the young woman had lived in their respective tents since their first meeting, which had taken place several weeks before. At that meeting, the young woman had struck the man but had later made peace with him. During the weeks when the young woman and the man had lived in their tents, they had often taken their meals together or had drunk tea together at the campfire between the tents. At such times, they had debated many matters, and the young woman had sometimes threatened to strike the man. Sometimes, beside the campfire, the man had persuaded the young woman to learn certain words and phrases in the Armenian language, which the man had learned from books for no other reason than that he felt driven to learn foreign languages. At one time, beside the campfire, the man had persuaded the young woman to conjugate in several of its tenses and moods the Armenian verb siriel, I love. In the course of this lesson, the man and the young woman were obliged to speak, in the Armenian language, such sentences as ‘I have loved’, ‘Love me!’ and ‘Thou wilt love’. At a later time, beside the campfire, the man proposed to the young woman that he and she should marry at some time in the future and should then go to live in America. At a later time still, the young woman left the dingle without the man’s knowing and did not return. A few days later again, the man received from the young woman a long letter telling him, among other things, that she was setting out alone for America and that she had declined his proposal of marriage because she believed he was at the root mad.
    isobelThe book in question is Isopel Berners by George Borrow, specifically the events of chapter fourteen. Not a book I suspect many will have heard of. Not an author I suspect many will have heard of. But none of that’s important. Were I to list all the books I’ve ever read I’m sure there will be a few oddities in there which are unique to me and form part of the image bank that I draw on every time I read a book. I, for example, to the best of my knowledge have only read one book by an Icelander—Stone Tree by Gyrðir Elíasson. Murnane has also read at least one, an “English translation of a long work of fiction that had been first published in the Icelandic language in Reykjavik in the year before” he was born—so that would be in 1938. My best guess would be Halldór Laxness’s World Light. Either way Murnane will have his fictionalised version of Iceland in his head and I will have mine.
    We’ve talked a lot about fiction—the word appears in the book over two hundred and fifty times—but what about non-fiction, facts? He has some interesting things to say on this subject. Two unrelated excerpts: 
    (Why did I write just then the expression a book of non-fiction? Why is the expression a factual book so seldom used? Is this our way of acknowledging that most seeming-facts are, in fact, fiction? And, if books of fiction are not called non-factual books, is this because we understand that most matters reported in books of fiction have a factual existence?)[…]
    The man who was aged nearly seventy years was making notes for a work of fiction in the belief that the power of fiction was sometimes able to resist, if not to overcome, the power of fact. The man understood that a fact could never be other than a fact, even though it might be reported in a work of fiction, but he believed that any fictional event or any fictional character might be said to have acquired a factual existence as soon as the event or the character had been reported in a published text.
    You might be forgiven for thinking you were reading a book on philosophy rather than a work of fiction but this is very much philosophy-with-a-small-p. This is a guy trying to communicate how he sees the world. It sounds complex but then riding a bike sounds difficult when you try and put it into words and really for all this guy’s a writer his primary interest is in the visual, what he ­sees when he reads.
    Although not arranged chronologically what we get in this book is a very specific kind of biography, from age eleven to nearly seventy; he’s seventy-five at the moment. Other of his works of fiction deal with different aspects of his life. As an addition to his existing canon I’d say it was invaluable but then I’m a fan as you can see from my articles on Tamarisk Row, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, Inland and The Plains. I’ve also read Barley Patch but never quite got round to writing about it.
    The final piece of fiction in this volume is ‘Last Letter to a Niece’. I’ll mention it just briefly. This is a very different piece of writing. You’d almost think it was a story. And there’s a reason for this. It’s actually an adaptation “from one of the seven pages about the life and the writing of Kelemen Mikes in the Oxford History of Hungarian Literature.” Oddly, though, it fits with the tone of the rest of the book because the uncle in question has never seen his niece and so holds an imaginary image of her in his head (and from all accounts in his heart): 
    But I have not explained myself. I am interested in the appearance and deportment of young women in this, the everyday visible world, for the good reason that the female personages in books, like all other such personages together with the places they inhabit, are quite invisible.
    You can hardly believe me. In your mind at this very moment are characters, costumes, interiors of houses, landscapes and skies, all of them faithful images of their counterparts in descriptive passages in books you have read and remembered. Allow me to set you right, dear niece, and to make a true reader of you.
    A true reader. I’d like to think this is how Murnane sees himself and that his efforts in writing this book (as well as his others books) is to convert us into true readers too. In that respect this is the most evangelical of texts and yet somehow manages not to be at all preachy.
    If you have read Murnane before this book will not disappoint. If you haven’t this isn’t actually a bad place to start. There’s stuff you won’t see as important—the marbles, the horse racing and his interest in Hungarian which he taught himself to speak late in life (see here)—but it’s not a great loss; the book stands alone just fine..- Jim Murdoch

    The epigraph from Proust to Gerald Murnane’s new novel A History of Books - published in a single volume along with three wonderful short stories - goes a long way to capturing its essence:
    "After a certain age our memories are so intertwined with one another that what we are thinking of, the book we are reading, scarcely matters any more. We have put something of ourselves everywhere, everything is fertile, everything is dangerous, and we can make discoveries no less precious than in Pascal’s Pensées in an advertisement for soap."
    How to come to terms with and describe Murnane’s novel without resorting to abstraction and to analogy? A History of Books is a rare and unmistakable novel, and one that always puts sense first. Put together with an acute sensitivity to words, sentences and paragraphs, this is a book that works. Not long ago, speaking at one of his rare public appearances, Murnane said: ‘The sentence is always better than the nonsentence.’ His is not a no nonsentence book. Take a look at the first sentence of the book:
    "A man and a woman, husband and wife, were standing in the main square of a town such as might have been depicted, fifty and more years ago, in one or another so-called article about one or another country in Central America in one or another issue of the National Geographic."
    Instability follows uncertainty, which comes on the heels of reservation. There’s the image of a couple in a town square, but as for where they are or how the narrator came to think of them—who knows? Some details of the image have been recalled from an issue of National Geographic, but even then what to make of the ‘so-called article’? Of what can we be certain? Almost nothing. Tread carefully. And this is not because Murnane’s narrator delights in obscurity—on the contrary, he demands exactitude from himself—but because this image belongs to the world of reading; to a moment in the past when a young man read a novel, and thought of a place he’d seen in picture in a magazine, and began to make connections. It’s a world of paradox and puzzlement, but one in which longing and remembrance can make things more than they ever were. Indeed, if we race ahead to the final sentence of the first paragraph (during which we learn that the man and woman have been fighting), this becomes all too clear: "None of the disputes between the man and the woman had been resolved when he and she became a male and female jaguar, or it may have been a male and female hummingbird or a male and female lizard."
    Need I say it? Not much happens in A History of Books. That’s a trite remark, and one that all too often describes narcissistic books about characters who wander around aimlessly in an obviously boring world. But Murnane’s world is a self-contained universe, bulging at the seams with significance, meticulously explored by a painstakingly thoughtful narrator. In Murnane’s own words: "There’s no drama or excitement, no murders, hardly any involvement between the sexes—it’s a brooding meditative sort of book." What comes to light is that the world of reading is also the world of writing. A formulation bluntly equivalent to: you are what you read, and you write what you are—if you can. (I only hope that there are some Murnane-reading writers in the wings.) It’s a point that comes to life in a stunning final paragraph, which I don’t have the heart to quote for fear of lessening it for future readers.
    The book is divided into twenty-nine sections. Each section explores and tests the memories the narrator has of reading a certain book by a certain author. A publisher’s note at the back of the book reports that, "The authors of the books referred to in A History of Books are believed to include Miguel Angel Asturias, Giorgio di Chirico, Charles Dickens …" The list is a long one, but what’s worth noting is not the names that appear, but that Murnane has withheld, even from his publisher, the authors referenced. There will be readers who take great joy from A History of Books, not just because it’s a great joy-giving novel, but because it can also be a puzzle, a maze of authors and books that few, if any, may ever map entirely.
    The narrator recalls image after image from books of literature, always unnamed, that he has read many years ago, and which since then, left to combine and recombine before resurfacing unexpectedly, have become something new and unpredicted. Indeed the stealth with which Murnane embeds the work of other authors into his own is the topic for a joke in an early scene, in which a man sits in the State Library of Victoria covertly cutting mug shots from a book entitled Twentieth Century Authors and pasting them in a notebook.
    More than once as I read I stopped to think: how did I get here? Murnane’s book is the work of a mind that takes nothing for granted, and which, instead of trading in conventional meaning, defines what it encounters on its own terms. T. S. Eliot’s famous remark about Henry James seems fitting here: "He had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it."
    That a reader freed from preconceptions is more capable, more full of potential for interpretation is exemplified by a moment when Murnane—with the same gentle, almost invisible sense of humour that runs throughout the novel—recalls an encounter with an absurd-sounding, unidentifiable word earlier in his reading life. We’re deep inside the world of memories, of privately momentous, semi-forgotten books:
    "The image-cliff was not a bare rocky cliff such as might have overlooked a bay or a seacoast but a steep embankment overgrown with grass and bushes and forming one side of something that was reported in the so-called neglected masterpiece as being a dingle, which word the young man had never looked for in any dictionary, preferring not to have to call into question the images that had first appeared in his mind while he was reading a work of fiction."
    At a certain point I realised that A History of Books describes the circumstances of its own creation; each of the images and episodes (what might be called, ‘an infinite progression of imaginary places’, to borrow another phrase from Murnane himself) has taken the author-narrator one step closer to being the writer of the book in our hands. Reading, Murnane seems to be saying, makes it possible for anything to mean everything, and for revelation to come from anywhere. Murnane’s prose constantly goes deeper and stares longer, as if holding the inner world of imagination, memory and language at arm’s length, turning it this way and that.
    A History of Books is set in an indeterminate mental universe; one conceived of but not defined by books. The mind of a narrator is freed from itself in order to explore itself. This is the place that has in one way or another always been the setting of Murnane’s work right back to Tamarisk Row, but which since Barley Patch seems to have become newly complex, ever more grand.
    And yet at the same time Murnane seems to be saying something simple. We are the inventors of ourselves. All there is to do is to read. - William Heyward

    GERALD Murnane is a novelist with an absolute distinctiveness and distinction, who has found a unique voice without compromising with the world of storytelling and narrative expectation, with realism and colour, and the paraphernalia of readability.
    He is forever writing sentences about the writer who is writing sentences. He has a pedantic, seemingly monotonous style in which the barest notations of an imaginary set-up (a stick writer who writes something called fiction in skeletal form but yields such reality as there is: a grassland here, a woman there, racing, the residuals of a Catholic country upbringing) are allowed to predominate. Yet what wonders Murnane derives from his old, familiar songs and their variations.
    A History of Books is made up of four pieces: the title piece, of novella length, concerns the impressions of a writer who is like the tricky double of the author derived from his reading.
    This is followed by a story like no other (they are all that), As It Were a Letter, about a boy in a Catholic country haven most of a lifetime ago and the conception of an ideal community with which he charms his mind's eye.
    This is followed by The Boy's Name Was David, which takes its bearings from just this sentence and the epistemological meditation on what it means for a fictional someone to say this at the start of a piece of fiction. And then, at the end, Last Letter to a Niece, in which an older writer muses about the all-but religious value writing has for the writer.
    The trouble with such a catalogue, for all that it makes Murnane sound like a self-reflexive writer's writer belabouring the fact, is that the face the artist sees in the mirror is always his own, and always an imaginative construction in which he finds his truth by a principle of distortion. But that kind of artsiness belies the poignancy of Murnane, who traverses great gulfs of feeling through what looks like the most minimal variation.
    These fictions are absolutely the real thing. They have perfect pitch: at first, seemingly bled of colour but when the suggestion of colour comes, like the faint memory of a tinge shading a blankness, it does so like a symphony of light.
    A History of Books is on the face of it a perverse run through the way various great works of literature - The Man without Qualities, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, Wuthering Heights, Halldor Laxness's The Fish Can Sing, among others - are occluded by the sensibility of the fiction writer who takes from each of them a still, small thing.
    The reader wonders for a moment if she is mad or in the presence of madness, but the steadiness of the illumination (not of the books but of something) is quite extraordinary. You start thinking that you have forgotten everything that you and Murnane have both read. But the disintegrative logic of this weird and wonderful reduction of literature to what might be a solipsist's candlelight is both funny and wise, and has in its final movement the kind of insistent power of feeling that recalls the great metaphysical poems of just yesterday: Rilke's Duino Elegies or Eliot's Four Quartets.
    Murnane has produced a masterly summation of the way the world of books exists to end up as a book with Gerald Murnane's name on the cover. It is wryly funny in the face of the author's defiant pose of humourlessness, and it is plangent in the face of every apparent refusal to believe in anything but the authority of the sentence.
    What stays in the mind? The scar on the wrist of a young woman who aspires to write fiction but does not write fiction. The screams in a hospital of a woman as she berates the man who has brought her there. The deep belief on the part of the man who works in words only because he has to that only the bare truth - at the level of the sentence, at the level of the conception, however frail - can write the signature that validates literary art.
    This is a grey, sad book that glows with grandeur. It is full of a sense of the loneliness of children, the loveliness of girls; and it is mighty with the power of the suggestion (as much spectral as spiritual) that it is the flicker of light and the suggestion of feeling that create the greatest of the worlds we have.
    Murnane is a wonderful writer. He has a sublime sense of his own ridiculousness though he never milks his jokes. He will make you weep at the stateliness with which he intimates how the most tiny and wan things constitute the poetry of the world. - Peter Craven

    On the eighth page of Barley Patch – a work of fiction by Gerald Murnane, published in 2009, the first such work to appear since Murnane decided that he was finished writing novels over a decade earlier, and for that reason alone a very considerable one – the narrator declares:
    ‘One day, I decided not to go on reading one after another book of a sort that could be called literature – that day was only a few months before the day when I decided to write no more fiction. When I made the earlier decision, I intended to confine my reading in future to the few books that I had never forgotten; I would reread those books – I would dwell on them for the rest of my life.’
    Of course, the reader (especially the reader that is, like me, particularly fascinated by and dedicated to the writing of Gerald Murnane) wonders, which books are included in this small but all important selection, which books have stood out from a lifetime of reading? And yet the question is never answered. At least perhaps until now.
    In fact, Murnane may have turned whatever reservations he had about reading, writing and publishing into subject matter. A History of Books (which is published with three shorter works) is Gerald Murnane’s tenth book of fiction, and its concerns are writing, reading and memory. It is divided into nine sections, each of which explores in detail the images that have been left in an unnamed narrator’s by certain books. The narrator moves imperceptibly from one memory to another, from one book to another, from image to image, never making pronouncements, always suggesting, giving the reader a glimpse at something beyond the bend. The final paragraph is sublime.
    Murnane is one of the most original writers at work any where in the world today. In A History of Books, he is as reflective, elusive, and mesmeric as ever. - Will Heyward
     

    Gerald Murnane, Landscape with Landscape. Sydney University Press, 2003.

    The titles of this collection of six loosely connected stories, Landscape with Freckled Woman, Sipping the Essence, The Battle of Acosta Nu, A Quieter Place than Clun, Charlie Alcock's Cock, and Landscape with Artist suggest the range of the writer's vision. Some of the stories here have elements of surreal fantasy and all seek to involve the reader in the construction of their meaning. Even when we are on foreign earth we are never far from our own private landscape.


    Gerald Murnane, A Lifetime on Clouds. Text Publishing, 2013.




    Adrian Sherd is a teenage boy in Melbourne of the 1950s, the last years before television and the family car changed suburbia forever.
    Earnest and isolated, tormented by his hormones and his religious devotion, Adrian dreams of elaborate orgies with American film stars, and of marrying his sweetheart and fathering eleven children by her. He even dreams a history of the world as a chronicle of sexual frustration.
    A Lifetime on Clouds is funny, honest and sweetly told: a less ribald, Catholic Australian Portnoy's Complaint.

    GERALD Murnane is the author of some of the most original books written by an Australian. His first novel, Tamarisk Row (1974), is an obsessive exploration of the imaginative terrain of childhood. His third, The Plains (1982), is a meditation on love, landscape and creativity that has a hallucinatory power.
    The novel that came between these two extraordinary books, A Lifetime on Clouds, has long been out of print. And yet, for my money, it is the funniest and most accessible of all his works. It is also a moving and fearless account of adolescent angst.
    Murnane's frank treatment of sexuality, longing, adult hypocrisy, and the guilt and confusion created by a sexually repressive 1950s Catholic boys school is as engaging now as when it was first published in 1976.
    The protagonist of A Lifetime on Clouds is 15-year-old schoolboy - and self-confessed sex maniac - Adrian Sherd, who lives in the southeastern suburbs of Melbourne. By coincidence, in 1976 I was a 15-year-old schoolboy living in the southeastern suburbs of Melbourne and, although I don't think I qualified as a sex maniac (not compared with Adrian Sherd, at least), I did have a strong interest in the subject.
    On my bedroom wall I had a poster of Suzi Quatro wearing a partially unzipped white leather jumpsuit, and I was convinced that if I could find just the right angle I would surely be rewarded with a glimpse of her left breast. I spent a lot of time that year with my cheek pressed against the wall, desperately trying - and failing - to penetrate the mysteries of that jumpsuit.
    Fortunately, other sources of raw material for my burgeoning interest in the female form were provided by the lurid covers of my horror comic collection, which often featured partially clothed damsels in distress. And I participated in Church of England Boys Society paper drives that exposed me to such racy publications as the ironically named Truth and its steamy Heart Balm letters page, as well as the Sunday Observer, which could be relied on to contain pictures of streakers running across sporting fields or down busy city streets. And if all else failed there was always the bra section of Kmart catalogues, although these were only to be called on in emergencies.
    But, despite my considerable efforts, I was a rank amateur when measured against Adrian Sherd, who takes a far more systematic approach to his fantasy life.
    Every afternoon Adrian sets his model train running across a large, crudely drawn map of the US. Whichever state it stops in will be the setting for one of his vividly imagined nightly escapades with scores of willing and scantily clad starlets, the inspiration for which he gathers from glimpses of the Hollywood movies his mother does not allow him to watch, the pages of the Argus newspaper and coveted and difficult-to-obtain magazines such as Man Junior and Health and Sunshine.
    Adrian brings an admirable rigour to his trips to America and maintains a strict policy not to allow any of the women he sees in real life into his fantasies. On the one occasion he breaks this self-imposed rule and issues an imaginary invitation to the "piney woods of Georgia" to a young, "carefully groomed" married woman he sees on the train, he finds he can't relax.
    Whenever he met her eyes he remembered he would have to face her on the train next morning ... It would be hard pretending that nothing had happened between them on the previous night.
    There was another difficulty. Jayne and Marilyn and Susan and their many friends always had the same look about them - a wide-eyed half-smile with lips slightly parted. The new woman had an irritating way of changing her expression. She seemed to be thinking too much.
    One of the many delights of the novel is the contrast between the debauchery of Adrian's imagined life and the humdrum reality of post-war Melbourne suburbia:
    One very hot Saturday morning Adrian Sherd was staring at a picture of the Pacific coast near Big Sur. He hadn't been to America for several days, and he was planning a sensational extravaganza for that very night with four or perhaps even five women against a backdrop of mighty cliffs and redwood forests.
    His mother came into the room and said she had been down to the phone box talking to his Aunt Francie and now Adrian and his brothers and mother and Aunt Francie and her four kids were going on the bus to Mordialloc beach for a picnic.
    The pleasures of America pose a dilemma for our insatiable hero who, increasingly terrified and burdened with guilt, attempts to reform himself - Adrian is Catholic, after all, and has been taught that masturbation is a mortal sin. He does this not by abandoning his fantasies but by redoubling his efforts to create an even more elaborate one, in which he courts, marries and raises a family with a good Catholic girl whom he has seen taking communion in church.
    This fantasy is so gloriously and painstakingly realised that it occupies most of the last half of the novel. Not only does it weaken the starlets' hold on Adrian's mind, but it makes the second half of the book possibly even more entertaining - and certainly more earnest and affecting - than the first.
    There is much to love in this novel and many passages that are profoundly funny - laugh-out-loud moments which, at the same time, evoke strongly felt and often deeply painful emotions. Throughout, Murnane masterfully maintains a deadpan tone.
    For instance, Adrian is angry and disappointed that he and his friends have been cheated by Father Dreyfus's much-anticipated sex-education film, which the brother promised would show them "the moment of fertilisation".
    Adrian imagines that, at the very least, this means the film will present them with "a statue or a painting of a man and woman doing it", but instead they are shown a picture of the female reproductive system and an animated image of an "army of little sperm men invading the diagram". "The commentator got excited. He thought there was nothing so marvellous as the long journey of these tiny creatures. Adrian didn't care what happened to the little bastards now that the film had turned out to be a fraud."
    What follows is one of the most shockingly funny images of the book and a great example of how Murnane isn't afraid to go where angels fear to tread. (OK, it's on page 130 if you can't wait.)
    Or consider Father Lacey's speech to Adrian's class, urging them to avoid non-Catholic newspapers:
    There's one Melbourne newspaper in particular that regularly prints suggestive pictures which are quite unnecessary and don't have anything to do with the news of the day. I won't name the paper, but some of you have probably noticed what I'm talking about. I hope your parents have, anyway.
    This very morning for example I happened to notice a picture on one of their inside front pages. It was what they call a sweater girl ...
    I'll speak quite frankly now. There are many famous and wonderful pictures of the naked female body with the bosom exposed - some of them are priceless treasures in the Vatican itself. But you'll never find one of these masterpieces drawing attention to the bosom or making it appear larger than it really is.
    So fervid is Adrian's imagination that in the course of A Lifetime on Clouds he provides nothing less than an alternative history of the world - from the Garden of Eden through to 50s Melbourne - focusing on the role masturbation has played in shaping civilisation.
    We are all familiar with Adam and Eve's crime of eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and Cain's slaying of his brother, but, according to the gospel of Adrian Sherd, what Cain did after spying on his mother and sisters as they bathed in the Tigris was even worse.
    When he was alone again, he formed his hand into the shape of the thing he had seen between their legs and became the first in human history to commit the solitary sin.
    Although it was not recorded in the Bible, that was a black day for mankind. On that day God thought seriously of wiping out the little tribe of Man. Even in His infinite wisdom He hadn't foreseen that a human would learn such an unnatural trick - enjoying by himself, when he was hardly more than a child, the pleasure that was intended for married men only ...
    Lucifer himself was delighted that Man had invented a new kind of sin - and one that was so easy to commit.
    If you only read one Gerald Murnane novel in your life, make it this one. There is so much pleasure to be had from reading this book that it's surely a new kind of sin - and one that is so easy to commit.
    - Andy Griffiths

    Gerald Murnane had me hooked from page one of what is his second novel, A Lifetime on Clouds. Murnane’s wonderful imagination (and perhaps parallels with his own Catholic schoolboy upbringing) is exhibited through the hilarious and sincere tale of teenager Adrian Sherd, whose mundane 1950s family life in Melbourne suburbia is supplemented by his own wild imagination.
    Adrian is a self-described sex maniac who can’t keep his hormones in check. He finds inspiration for his outrageous and increasingly disturbed sexual fantasies in the entertainment section of the local newspaper, where the latest Hollywood starlets are discussed and illustrated. He also attempts to uncover the secrets of the female form from magazines and art books but ‘… suspect[s] a conspiracy among artists and sculptors to preserve the secrets of women from boys like himself’.
    As a Catholic schoolboy, Adrian is not only fighting impure thoughts but is constantly plagued by pre-conditioned religious guilt. I found Murnane’s colourful descriptions of the priests’ and brothers’ lectures to the boys on carnal sins particularly enjoyable. Adrian comes up with some very funny methods to keep his mind and body both occupied and exhausted between Thursday confessional and Sunday mass. He does not want his parents to look on shamefully if he is unable to attend Holy Communion; an indication he was unable to remain pure for those few days!
    When Adrian’s imagination starts to lead him on a path to redemption, I found the story shift delightful. As intently as he was headed in one direction, Adrian is spun to now focus his entire life on another path. The fun that Murnane has with these variations in Adrian’s character is what makes A Lifetime on Clouds such a joy to read. - Suzanne Steinbruckner


    Gerald Murnane, Tamarisk Row. Giramondo, 2008.

    Based on Murnane’s own early years growing up in the Victorian country town of Bendigo, Tamarisk Row is an unsparing evocation of an impoverished Catholic childhood in the late 1940s. Originally published in 1974, and out of print for almost twenty years, Tamarisk Row is Murnane’s first novel, and in many respects his masterpiece, not only because of its rich social tapestry and its evocation of the Australian landscape, but because it does magical things with language, its long sinuous sentences capturing the movements of consciousness with a suppleness unmatched in our writing. For this reason, the novel remains as fresh and vital when read today, as when it first appeared.


    Gerald Murnane, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs: Essays. Giramondo,2005.

    read it at Google Books

    This collection of essays leads into the eccentric imagination of Gerald Murnane, one of the masters of contemporary Australian writing.

    GERALD MURNANE writes fiction like no one else. His essays read much like his fiction - which means he writes essays like no one else.
    Of the baker's dozen here, written between 1984 and 2003, four are about writers - Adam Lindsay Gordon, Jack Kerouac, Proust and the Hungarian Gyula Illyes - one on books and memory, one on his time as Meanjin's fiction consultant, one on learning Hungarian and the other five variously on Murnane's own writing.
    As would be expected, the takes on other writers are unconventional. Murnane, who has not travelled and who routinely redrafts six and seven times, would seem to have little in common with the freewheeling, fast-flowing Kerouac. But they share an interest in the horse track and, more importantly, marbles substituting as racehorses in self-devised boyhood games.
    The shock of recognition comes in reading Kerouac's Dr Sax: "Everything I had wanted to know about Jack's racecourse was there: detailed form guides, calls of memorable races . . . imagined afternoons of bright skies and fast tracks . . . 'The Turf was so complicated it went on forever'."
    The track matters but what matters more is the underlying system, the vast series of connections between horses, trainers and jockeys, and the infinite possibilities in every race. It is in this essay that Murnane writes: "Two events in my childhood impressed me so deeply that I still have not traced the whole pattern of their influence in my thinking and feeling . . . The second was my father's putting into my hands a copy of the mid-week edition of the Sporting Globe, with its pages of photographs of the previous Saturday's races in Melbourne."
    Anyone familiar with Tamarisk Row, his first book, understands.
    The mutual pressure between the longing for the infinite and the particular of the detail is what drives Murnane's writing. So, in his marvellous essay on Proust, the writer whom he most resembles in attention to the workings of the mind at the edge of consciousness, we learn of a fly buzzing in January 1954, another in January 1973, then detour through Oakleigh South's Metropolitan Golf Club in the 1950s, where Murnane caddied and poured beers, before receiving an initial impression of his reading Proust.
    He took a strong dislike to the pampered boy. "I saw myself dragging him out of the hands of his mother . . . putting an axe in his hands, pointing out to him one of the heaps of timber I had split into kindling for the kitchen stove, and then hearing the namby-pamby bleating for his mama." - Michael Epis





    Front Cover
    Gerald Murnane, Emerald Blue, McPhee Gribble, 1995.
     Front Cover
    Gerald Murnane, Velvet Waters, McPhee Gribbl, 1990.

    Signs for the Soul by Anthony Uhlmann

    Reading Gerald Murnane by Nicholas Birns in Context

    The Three Archives of Gerald Murnane




    This is an extract from an interview that took place on 23 June 2014. 

    I thought I’d start by asking you about A Million Windows because it is your most recent book, and I feel it was a special book for you in some ways.
    Well, taking just bald arithmetical facts, I wrote it faster than I have written any other book –  in about six months, seven or eight months at the longest. Only one draft. And there are other books of mine that would have taken three or four years to write, and three or four drafts to write. The other thing is that I sat down in one afternoon and wrote the plan of it: the titles and the rough contents of every section. I did what I often do, I wrote the title of each section on a card and got down on the carpet here on the floor and played around with the order. I get a lot of fun doing that, deciding which piece will be followed by which piece. And once I had done that, I just sat down at my desk and at every available bit of time I could find I just wrote it. That’s it.
    Is there some reason for that? The urgency of the subject matter?
    No. The completeness. The sheer pleasure I got. I mean, writing is not much fun for me. And there are days, there were weeks and months with other books, that I’ve had to drag myself to the table, the desk and start writing. With this one, I couldn’t get back to it quick enough because, as I said, I seemed to know what I was doing.
    When you mentioned the subject matter, even though – I have to correct something slightly – even though I knew from the titles and the brief outline, I knew what was in each section, there are things in the finished book that are there, but I didn’t know they were going to be there when I was halfway through. A little example: when I was writing about the blue, the indigo and silver dressing gown, one of the – we’ll call them chief characters, there’s one narrator but there are a number of chief characters, each is an inhabitant of some or another room in the house of a million windows – when I was reporting the existence of that dark blue and silver dressing gown, I had no notion that I would mention later in the book the dark blue and silver kingfisher bird that flew across the clearing in the forest. That sort of discovery, or the hope of that sort of discovery, is really almost the chief motivation when I am writing something like A Million Windows, and I got an endless number of lifts and boosts during the writing of it.
    The kingfisher in the clearing in the forest leads to another element which possibly also wasn’t part of the original plan, and that is the ending of the book about the mother of the chief personage.
    Well, that incident was there, but I didn’t see the connection between the forests and the, um … it’s based on a few things that I know about, and I didn’t recall when I first decided to put it into the book that the mother’s rape took place in a forest, in fact the same forest where the bird had flown past many years earlier, a forest which I have also written about in Emerald Blue – the Heytesbury forest.
    But I was thinking the other day, I know very little about the visual arts, but I understand that there is a time in the history of the visual arts when what we call scholars or critics wrote much about the composition of a painting. Not just the subject matter alone, but the way that the painting, the details or items in the painting, were arranged or composed. And I’d never thought of it before, but I thought that what I’ve just been talking about in relation to A Million Windows could be called the composition, and I get tremendous satisfaction from discovering what the composition will be, and then satisfaction afterwards in just standing back and admiring the composition.
    So the composition is what, the arrangement of images?
    How things fit together, and particularly the order in which they come and hopefully, to use a slightly mixed metaphor, the reverberation or echoes. I used to use the word ‘strand’, or sometimes I’ve used the word ‘theme’, but that’s a bit pretentious. My work, my fiction, all of my fiction, each work consists of strands – now I’ve come up with the word ‘composition’. And of course for me, I happen to be a very visual person. Another way to talk about it is just the visual imagery, or simply the imagery. And colour and shape have a lot to do with it. See, I’ve already got fixated on the blue and the silver of the bird and the dressing gown.
    But I feel that your way of working with images suggests that there’s always more in the image than you’re aware of. There is a strong sense that the image contains more than you’ve written about, that there is always something more to be said, or to return to. Is that what you are referring to by what I would call ‘resonance’ actually?
    Yes, I wouldn’t claim any special prowess or ability in this respect because I’ve often performed a sort of mental exercise and just now as I was about to – I’ve interrupted myself and my thoughts are actually doing what I was about to describe.
    In the book Inland, there’s a sentence, a little musical phrase almost, that repeats: one thing is always more than one thing. And one image is always more than one image. Not necessarily images in a book of fiction by Gerald Murnane, but I’ve performed this mental exercise, as I call it, of focusing mentally on some detail or other – let’s call it an image – and it doesn’t stay in view. It relates or links up or it unfolds or it breaks apart and reveals another image. I mean, people probably call that free association, stream of consciousness, many terms have been used. I just simply call it the behaviour of the – it the nature of images to behave in that way. And it seems to me when I write that the subject matter, the potential subject matter of what I am writing about is almost infinite.
    And then, of course, selection come into it. I don’t – I would be horrified to think that anybody would suppose I wrote from simply freely associat[ing], or did any such thing. The matter of selection is of tremendous importance and things have to be rejected because, interesting or pretty as they might seem, they don’t really relate to the main strands or the main framework or the main composition.
    I think you wrote somewhere, I’m not sure exactly where, that the images for you are like villages on the plain, or towns on the plain, and the roads connecting them are like feelings.
    That was in the first piece in Emerald Blue, ‘In Far Fields’. Fictitious. The author, the narrator, is described as being a teacher of writing and using manilla folders and throwing them around, scattering rather, on the floor of his office. I don’t know that I ever did such a thing, but I could readily imagine that I could do such a thing, as a way of explaining how I wrote. There’s another image – yes, the roads. Since I am a great lover of maps and someone who peruses maps far more readily than he travels, the imagery of maps comes readily to mind. The other thing is the little diagram I used to draw on the chalkboard or the whiteboard when I was a teacher of writing. It started with a little polygon in the centre, and it took on a – I think years ago I saw a diagram of a snowflake, or some sort of crystalline substance, and the central polygon is surrounded by eight to ten other polygons, and rays or connecting lines link them up. Not just the central one to the others, to each of the others, but each of the others to each of its fellows. And I like, it encourages me when I am writing, to think of the shape as – certainly not linear, I don’t think. There are passages in my books that follow a sort of linear progression, but most of my books are arranged, composed of small sections, which as I said earlier, could have taken other orders, or could have been arranged in other orders. And time – I don’t see any, I’m not over-ruled or over-concerned with the demands of a temporal progression. I can write something early in the book from the fictional future of the book, and something later in the books from the fictional beginnings or the early time.
    Those connections between images or between the same image in different contexts are across works too, not just in the one work of fiction, but there is a high degree of return and repetition with variation across your whole writing, isn’t there?
    Critics have said that, and I’ll take it as praise and they meant it as praise, I’ve done an amazing amount with a very small amount. That for someone whose experience is not terribly wide, never having travelled extensively, or not being part of any sort of political activity or having fought in any battles or that sort of thing, led a fairly quiet life, I’ve written upwards of a dozen books using and reusing, and using in different ways, a limited amount of material. They’ve gone on, the same people, sometimes to try and name the items. Start with grassy landscapes and distant views of females and so on, but I’ll leave that to others. Oh, horse racing of course.
    That’s why I suggested that in some ways the image for you resonates, and has more than can be got from it at any one go, so that you keep coming back to the same image.
    The well is almost bottomless. The thing unfolds and it unfolds like some sort of, like those fast shots people used to take – they were novelty films in the early days when I used to be a kid going to films. The speeded-up views of flowers opening and the buds turning into flowers. There are images – I suppose that the Heytesbury forest – there are images I would venture to say haven’t yielded up yet all the meaning that they potentially contain.
    You mentioned the well. That image of the girl who drowns herself in the well, who leaps into the well, the peasant girl, which you take originally from the Birds of the Puszta, which appears in a number of works, most notably I think in Inland, but it’s also in A Million Windows as well. And then when it leads to the clearing in the forest and the rape of the mother, suddenly you feel there’s an aspect to the image which in some ways explains its recurrence. But it hadn’t been there until then.
    Well, fiction is a kind of magic or alchemy. I was sitting on a suburban train. I can’t recall – somewhere in those archives over there would be the answer to that, but never mind – it was a date somewhere in the ‘80s, and I was reading an English translation of the Hungarian – it’s not a novel, it’s a book of sociology I suppose – Puszta Népe, which means people of the Puszta. It was written in the 1930s. And I read a section about the oppression, the sexual oppression of the girls on the great estates by the – not by the owners and the aristocrats who owned the estates, but by the lesser officials who were only jumped up peasants anyway: the overseers and the farm supervisors. And then I read the pages – the cowherds pulled her out when they watered the cattle at dawn – and I think my life changed at that point. Something, I knew something was afoot. I couldn’t have imagined the way that piece of reading would change my life and my fiction.
    Of all the images that I have in mind, that one has probably has yielded the most and has perhaps even still the most to yield. It caused me to learn the Hungarian language, for one thing, and to be able to quote the whole of that passage in Hungarian.  [Speaks Hungarian] – that’s the cowherds pulled her out when they watered the cattle at dawn section. And I wrote the book Inland and the well just keeps occurring – I don’t go looking for it, it comes looking for me. And it occurs in numerous places, as you’ve said, in other books and things I have written.
    So I can’t – you didn’t raise the matter and not many people would have raised the matter. But sometimes I get to know of writers who – I’ll just speculate about the reasons why people have written fiction. I used to have a contemptuous expression I used as a teacher about people who chose their fictional subject matter from yesterday’s headlines. Not for me to condemn anyone in the wide world of fiction, but I could never even contemplate looking out, putting my hand to my forehead and looking out for the subject matter of my next piece or book. I think Isaac Bashevis Singer said: it comes looking for me, I don’t have to look. It’s there already, and it’s just a new development in my own life.
    So I can say in all honesty and sincerity that I can’t tell the difference between my fiction, my thinking about my fiction, and my life. It’s as important to me as almost anything else in my life. And as I jokingly said years ago to somebody – it was in connection with literature board grants. Somebody said it must be nice to have a literature board grant – this was back in the 1970s – it must be nice to have a literature board grant now, you’ll able to go on with your writing. I said, I’d go on with my writing if they fined me for writing, instead of giving me seven thousand a year or whatever it was. If they made me pay that amount. So long as I could find the money I would go on writing, that’s how important it was to me. And in the face of a certain amount of unfavourable criticism, which I have had from some quarters. It would have no effect on me whatever because I am just one of those people who just had to write, even if it’s not for publication. The evidence is around us as we sit here.- Gerald MurnaneIvor Indyk
    - www.sydneyreviewofbooks.com/fiction-alchemy-interview-gerald-murnane/

    For this interview, I sent off a document of eight questions directed at a writer by the name of Gerald Murnane. More than a month went by before I received in my inbox a scanned facsimile of complete answers to those questions, typewritten by my vague idea of this man.
    Despite the impersonal, disjointed process, I don’t think I’d have had it any other way. In many ways, this is exactly how an author interview should take place: not eye to eye, but in slow-delivered written exchanges, and from a distance – that distance between reader and writer, a distance that may as well be infinite.
    In his responses here, Murnane spends some time undoing any ideas this or any other reader might have about another possible Murnane: the Australian writer, notorious for his reclusiveness, with eleven books to his name. Indeed, he makes it clear that it is his work – not another version of himself – which sits apart from him, distinct. Yet it remains entirely appropriate that this interview could have been conducted across the galaxy – any reader of Gerald Murnane’s books will be aware of the secret worlds of his writing. They are at the borderlands of literature, its great plains – a realm he has, in his writing, made his own.
    3:AM Magazine: In your letter to Teju Cole in Music and Literature, you wrote: “Most of my books were hard to write.” In a recent interview with Ivor Indyk for The Sydney Review of Books, you said: “Writing isn’t much fun for me.” Several years ago you decided to stop publishing your writing altogether. The story follows that Indyk eventually coaxed another book out of you for Giramondo Publishing, and here we are, a decade later, nearing the publication of your memoir Something for the Pain (October 2015, Text Publishing). In publishing terms, you’ve never been so prolific, and while there was at one time a decision to stop publishing, you have always written. Your fabled archives, if not your eleven published books, would suggest that writing has nothing to do with ease for you, or fun. What, then, is it?
    Gerald Murnane: Writing is, to put the matter plainly, a relief. I can go for weeks or months without writing, but during many periods of my life I’ve written as if my very life depended on it. I’ve had months, perhaps years, when I wrote only notes for my archives, the time and again the need has come back – the need to put into words some complex pattern of feelings and imagery. They comprise my Holy Trinity: images, feelings, words. Those three are the basic components of my universe, the sub-atomic particles of all that matters – images, feeling, words. The writing itself is painful, because images and feelings belong in the invisible world and have to be translated into words, which are part of the visible world. The writing itself is painful, but a worse pain comes from not writing. When I first conceive a work of fiction, I try to put off the writing of it because of the pain involved. But then the pain of knowing that the feelings and the imagery will never be expressed in words – then that pain becomes unbearable. And then I relieve the pain by writing.
    3:AM: I want to speak about one of the most astonishing elements of your work. The idea of everything being at least two things is considered perhaps in the most depth in Inland, but this theme has been with you from the start. Tamarisk Row, for instance, is a marble, a horse, the embodiment of the hopes and dreams of the imaginary family who live below the tamarisks in the Killeatons’ yard. By no means is the trajectory of your artistic project predictable, but the steps have been logical – as if planned from the beginning. Maybe this is misleading, and it’s the connections in your work that make it seem as if this is the case. Can you tell me about this?
    GM: In fact, I haven’t explicitly stated what you refer to. The statement was made by the narrator of Inland. My theory of narration is a simplified version of the theory devised by Wayne C. Booth, which would require you to say that the first-person narrator of Inland made the statement in question. Given that the narrator of Inland is a reliable-seeming narrator and is by his own admission of the same gender as myself and of the same age, then you can justly believe that the narrator and the implied author of Inland are near enough to identical. You can never, however, be justified in supposing that the implied author and the breathing author are identical. So, the statement that interests you was made, you might say, by a part of myself or by a version of myself. Do I, the person typing these lines – do I believe the statement? I don’t swear by it. It’s no article of faith for me. In my daily life I need few, if any, such beliefs as that everything is more than one thing or that everything is connected with at least one other thing. When I’m writing, things are wholly different. The writing part of me is likely to adopt any position needed for the sake of his work. I mean, I’ll become the sort of narrator needed for the fiction under way – for its acquiring its true shape and meaning.
    You ask me to tell you about my remaining concerns throughout my career with the same matters. What can I tell you except that I have indeed been thus concerned? Well, I can tell you that I don’t find this at all strange. I sometimes declare that the subject matter of my writing is what matters to me most. Is it surprising that what matters to me most today is little different from what mattered most fifty years ago? I have no time for those writers of fiction who find their subject matter in the news headlines; who turn the so-called issues of the day into fiction.
    You speculate that my body of work seems as though it was planned from the beginning. This is my opportunity to complain against another item of foolishness that occurs often in discussion about writers, especially those such as myself, whose books sell few copies. Often, the expression occurs “He published his first book in …” Or, “Fours years passed before he published his next book…” Such expressions bring to mind a powerful figure of the Great Writer choosing when and where and in what order he’ll deign to bestow his books on the world. There may well be such authors, but I can assure anyone interested that I’ve never published any books. That task was performed by publishers, and until I was taken up by my present publisher, Giramondo, they had the upper hand. Given the praise that my books have received in recent times, persons such as yourself must find it hard to credit that Tamarisk Row was published as a result of a stroke of luck. The typescript was lifted out of a huge slush-pile of unsolicited stuff after an acquaintance of mine mentioned to the publisher that my stuff was worth reading. A Lifetime on Clouds was half a book – the publisher cut in half the long four-part work that I first submitted. The Plains was an expanded version of a section of a long work rejected by several publishers. I could go on. The first seven books of mine to be published, if they weren’t mutilated versions of what I originally wrote, were, to a certain extent, compromises. I was never unaware while I wrote that a publisher was going to assess my work from a viewpoint quite unlike my own.
    So, let’s forget the idea of Young Gerald seeing his life’s work laid out in advance and progressing from book to book in an ever-so-orderly fashion. Remember, too, that apart from my struggle to appeal to publishers, I was nearly always a part-time writer with a full-time job and a wife and children around me. All I can say is that I wrote as well as I could about what mattered most to me at the time and when I could find a few spare hours. After Emerald Blue, which the publisher hardly bothered to publicise, I took a break for ten years – not from writing but from trying to write what would find ready publication.
    3:AM: The Plains is widely regarded as your masterwork. How do you feel about that? Do you agree?
    GM: I can think of two cogent reasons for denying the proposition. First, I did not conceive of The Plains as it now exists. Twice at least, I’ve had a vision, so to speak, of a work of fiction and have then put that vision into words. The examples that come to mind are A History of Books and A Million Windows. The Plains went through a sort of life-cycle rather like a butterfly. My second reason is this. Rarely do I wish I could have rewritten parts of any published work of mine, but I’d like to rewrite a few passages in The Plains. I consider them now too dense – even a bit contorted.
    3:AM: Dalkey Archive Press has published your novels Inland and Barley Patch. In a recent interview, Jeremy Davies, the editor at Dalkey assigned to these two books, said of you, “I don’t know that he needs editing.” He went further and said that maybe you’ve earned that right. When reading one of your books, it is difficult not to notice the craftsmanship, the process of smoothing these sentences flat, the patterns that emerge as a result. What happens when you submit a new work to your publisher?
    GM: The question arouses a mild resentfulness in me. Once again, the questioner seems to suppose that my career was orderly, well planned, untroubled even; that my books were finished at regular intervals and delivered into the outstretched hands of expectant publishers. But I mustn’t get started again. You mention the craftsmanship of my writing. I wouldn’t dare give myself a ranking among my contemporaries in any field other than craftsmanship. And in that field I’d rank myself first. My sentences are the best-shaped of any sentences written by any writer of fiction in the English language during my lifetime. The previous sentence is a fair average sample of my prose.
    Publishers may have suggested minor changes to some or another work of mine over the years, but I can’t recall any publisher complaining that a sentence of mine was faulty.
    Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, Ivor Indyk of Giramondo, who has been my most loyal and devoted publisher, has been at times critical of my work after his first reading – not of my prose but of some of my subject-matter. He wanted me to make some of the sections of A History of Books less demanding of the reader. I was able to talk him around on most issues.
    3:AM: I hesitate to ask you about your place in Australian literature both because it’s a discussion of categories and because you have directly or indirectly credited your influences as being almost wholly outside of it: Marcel Proust and Emily Brontë and Henry James. That said, I do feel somewhat obliged – you are Australian, you have never lived anywhere else and your writing is published into this country’s book market. Is your place in Australian literature something you think about?
    GM: Flemington racecourse has a straight-six track. Certain races are run there over a straight course of twelve hundred metres, or six furlongs as we once called it. Sometimes, if the field is large, a group of horses will follow the inside rail while another group follows the outer rail, perhaps thirty metres away. Each group, of course, has its own leaders and pursuers and tail-enders. Sometimes, the outside group numbers only a few while the inside group comprises most of the field. The watchers in the grandstands, near the winning-post, are often unable to tell which group is in front of the other. The watchers are almost head-on to the field, and only when the leaders reach the last few hundred metres can they, the watchers, line up the two different groups, as the expression has it. If I try to compare myself with my contemporaries, I usually see us all as a field of horses coming down the straight-six course at Flemington. Most of us are over on the rails. I’m on my own coming down the outside fence. At different times, one or another of the bunch on the rails shows out far ahead of the others. Being on my own, I can’t be compared with any nearby rival, but I seem to be going well. Do I explain myself? In thirty years from now, we may know the finishing order. By that time, my archives may have become available to the public – a whole new body of my writing to be taken account of.
    3:AM: One of things most strongly evoked for me when reading your work is a sense of place – but a place which is no place, at least not a physical place, not one that can be located on any sort of map. You have always lived in Victoria, and you have never left Australia. Is there a connection between your reluctance to travel and your writing – more specifically, the places – in your pages?
    GM: I’ve written at length in ‘The Breathing Author’ about my becoming confused in strange places. I’ve sometimes said that my not wanting to travel far comes from my preference for looking into things rather than at things: for seeing patterns in my surroundings rather than mere surfaces in unfamiliar places. As for the places in my pages, I’ll repeat here what I’ve had at least one of my narrators write in my fiction: that I consider the mind a place; that I consider time to be an endless series of places; and that to write my sort of fiction is to bring into being places within places.
    3:AM: Something for the Pain is forthcoming from Text Publishing later this year. It’s described as both a memoir and a book about horseracing (maybe, once again, they are the same thing?). Of course, I read this description and thought of Tamarisk Row, of Clement Killeaton – and so a return to the beginning. Where does Something for the Pain sit in your body of work?
    GM: You yourself have sensibly avoided the issue, but I’m often asked how near or far is my fiction from autobiography. Although parts of my fiction may seem like autobiography, I know myself that I’ve hardly ever reported without much embellishment any part of my life-story, so to call it. My archives include a good deal of autobiographical writing, and that writing seems to be quite different from my fiction. Something for the Pain is autobiography, pure and simple. The sub-title is A Memoir of the Turf, but I’ve managed in my horsey book, as I call it, to reveal more about myself than I’ve revealed in my fiction.
    3:AM: Do you still think about Clement Killeaton?
    GM: I’m tired of your question after question. Here’s a smart-arse answer. I’ve thought about Clement so much over the years that I’ve turned into him in my old age. Read the second-last section of Something for the Pain when the book comes out later this year. - Tristan Foster


    Liberating the Canon - an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US

    Liberating The Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature , Ed. by Isabel Waidner, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018. "If there were a...