Gerald Murnane - Border Districts cover

Writers fall along a spectrum measuring the degree to which they consciously seek out experience to feed their work. At one end are those whose output requires a rich diet of novel sights and information from the world beyond their own minds. These are the kind of writer who might embark on train journeys from Beijing to Prague, determined to notice as much as possible along the way, sniffing out encounters with people who are picturesque or unusual, the better to be rendered in prose, and reading all they can about train engines, Beijing, Prague, and the regions between one and the other.

At the other end of the spectrum is Gerald Murnane: an eighty-year-old Australian writer who, at most, might once have read a novel in which a character undertook a long train journey, and who is content to study the impression left on his memory by that long-ago reading, contemplating the mental image of a woman on a train crossing a landscape of which he also holds a detailed image, though he has never seen it for himself, not even on a screen, because he doesn’t watch TV or go to the cinema, let alone travel to distant lands.

Gerald Murnane’s late-life fame has mushroomed in tandem with the mythos of eccentricity and inwardness that he encourages. By now it is widely known that Murnane has never been on a plane, and hardly ever travelled beyond the state of Victoria where he was born. He has never used a computer, remains aloof from other writers because he finds them pretentious, and – the apex of his perversity as an Australian – regards the ocean as ‘an enemy’, and would gladly do without bodies of water altogether. Social issues and politics do not enliven Murnane, and the only research he conducts is la recherche du tempes perdu. As such, he stands in inversion to the writerly ideal attributed to Susan Sontag: Gerard Murnane is someone who is interested in nothing (or almost nothing: there is his quasi-theological obsession with horse racing, which we’ll get back to).

Even within the territory of his work, Murnane appears not to have travelled very far. Compare the opening paragraph of his third novel, The Plains, published in 1982

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.

to that of his most recent and, according to Murnane, probably final novel Border Districts, published more than three decades later, in 2017

Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.

There may be a bit of deliberate self-referencing going on here, but syntactically and thematically, we are roaming the same terrain, seeing through the same pair of (open or guarded) eyes. Murnane’s abiding concerns, along with evidence of his determination to forge a style of writing congruent with them, are present in his debut novel Tamarisk Row, first published in 1974 and now appearing for the first time outside of Australia. His later books would become increasingly rarefied – ‘technical’, to use Murnane’s preferred descriptor – but while Tamarisk Row is not quite a plot-driven blockbuster, it is in many senses a classical first novel, offering the familiar pleasures of lightly fictionalised autobiography – an author relieving himself of the fascination of his development – albeit in a slant, unusual manner.

Clement Killeaton is nine years old, an inhabitant of the small Australian country town of Bassett. Clement’s father Augustine, who is of Irish descent, supports his wife and son mainly by betting on the horses. A fine early scene recounts Augustine’s life-changing triumph with a recently bought yearling. The windfall sets him up for marriage, and a sad lifetime of vainly hoping for another win like that one. Our sense that Augustine is a deadbeat dad is mirrored by his wife Jean’s growing resentment for him and his seedy gambling associates, yet he is presented sympathetically, as a man sorely aware of his shortcomings. His passion for the races is internalised by his son, a solitary boy who begins to construct an imaginary world of elaborate racing tournaments and sexual licence. Thus emerges a kind of origin myth for the parallel world of fantasy horse-racing tournaments that Murnane has privately documented for years in his ‘Antipodean Archive’ – an oddball, obsessive endeavour that plants him in the camp of outsider artists like Henry Darger.

Those of us who don’t remember having what Freud termed a ‘latency stage’ in our sexual development will be reassured by Clement, who is a pervy little boy. Much of Tamarisk Row concerns his attempts to find out what is inside girls’ pants, and his increasingly forceful desire to get naked with them. The scenes recounting his ambiguous devotion to a Catholic Brother teacher are collaterally subversive: it is not the priest who attempts to seduce the boy, but vice versa. The book is broken into single-paragraph sections containing no direct speech, each bearing a heading like ‘CLEMENT TRIES TO FIND OUT ABOUT GIRLS’ or ‘FLOCKS OF UNSEEN BIRDS PASS THROUGH BASSETT’. Murnane reports that Tamarisk Row took him ten years to write, and it is a markedly mature debut, which treats the perilous subject of childhood with none of the sentimentality other novelists might take a book or two to shake off. Like the recurrent scenes of sexual investigation, the ones of schoolyard bullying are depicted with cool neutrality, as the chief tormenter and his minions subject Clement and his classmates to elaborate choreographies of sadism. At one point, Clement shits himself in fear while trying to squirm his way out of a hiding.

Considering the ‘technical’ qualities of his later work, it can come as a surprise to learn that Murnane is a devoted reader of Jack Kerouac, a less composed writer whose influence can be felt here in the long sentences of breathless lyricism, the yearning Catholicism, and the seeker’s passion for wide expansive landscapes. In Tamarisk Row, these flat, monotonous, sunny landscapes of Australia, along with the diaphanous interplay of colour and memory, point to the increasingly inward, contemplative terrain that Murnane has explored in the books he has written since, in which Antipodean vistas collapse onto the infinite landscape of the mind. One passage reads like an abstract for the short novel The Plains that Murnane would publish eight years later:

He supposes that the reason why he has always been strangely affected by the sight of plains and flat grasslands viewed from a distance is that the most mysterious parts of those lands lie in the very midst of them, seemingly unconcealed and there for all to see but in fact made so minute by the hazy bewildering flatness all around them that for years they might remain unnoticed by travellers.

In The Plains, the mystique of the Australian interior – corollary to Murnane’s distaste for the coast – assumes hallucinant, metaphysical dimensions. If one had to pitch this novel to publishers, the hook would be easy: Borges Down Under. In contrast to Murnane’s more intensely focussed work, The Plains displays his funny side. A deadpan report of a hermetic, warped civilisation that exists on the expanses of inland Australia – and on another plane of reality to the mundane coastal regions, disdainfully known to the plainsmen as ‘Outer Australia’ – the novel is full of secret societies, schismatic art movements, perplexing lore, and outlandish philosophical schools. A filmmaker travels from the coast, determined to shoot a film that will decipher the secrets of the plains and the men and women who dwell on them in meditative reverence (the plains feel more like Aboriginal dreamtime than the familiar white Australia). He stays there for many years, musing on the nature of the plains and their mythologies, but the film never gets made.

The conceit of an imaginary civilisation replete with fanciful metaphysical controversies evokes such seminal Borges stories as ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’. In a probable nod to the master, a significant proportion of The Plains is set in that most Borgesian of locations, a library. While thus calling attention to a precursor, The Plains suggests that Borges was wise to confine himself to the short story format: this kind of fantastical whimsy, which substitutes for the involvement of character-based realism a dazzling but superficial fiction of ideas, impresses in the sprint, but pants and splutters over longer distances. The Plains begins with high promise and conceptual intrigue: it is worth picking up, and worth giving up on.

By the end of his career, in the shimmering memory palace of his novel Border Districts, Murnane has transitioned fully from lyricist of boyhood to technician of memory, meticulously filing ‘reports’ detailing the contents of his mind. Murnane seems to have fallen out of the Catholic faith that colours much of his work, but his mystically-inclined remarks about the nature of mind suggest that his instincts remain essentially religious (he has asserted his confidence that the mental landscape he has endeavoured to examine will persist after physical death). On the jacket of Border Districts, a subtitle insists that we are holding in our hands A Fiction, only for the text itself to destabilise our understanding of the term as it applies to this work:

As I understand the matter, a writer of fiction reports events that he or she considers imaginary. The reader of the fiction considers, or pretends to consider, the events actual. This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional.

The tissue of examined memories of which Border Districts is composed closely mirror those of Gerald Murnane, as we know from his public pronouncements (and his recent New York Times profile). For instance, the narrator describes how he was so impressed by a Hungarian novel in translation that he learned the language in order to read it in the original – precisely the same experience that Murnane has recounted in his off-the-page life. The text compulsively draws attention to the process of its own composition. Phrases like ‘I strayed a little in the previous two sentences’ appear frequently – this is a book about a man writing the book we are reading. For all that, Border Districts does not feel tricksy; its author is not playing games with us. Stories occur – there are apostasies, betrayals, sexual scandals – but these are secondary effects of the ‘mental images’ whose inspection stirs them up. Narrative as an end in itself is an imperative that Murnane has by now discarded, committing himself to a Proustian immersion in the tones and hues of the past (Proust is never far from one’s mind in this book, and his work inevitably shows up along the circuitries of reminiscence), the contemplation of colour (‘I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints. Crimson lake, burnt umber, ultramarine…’), and what ‘might be called the life and death of mental entities’. As he examines these ‘mental entities’ – each of them a stained-glass window onto a luminously actual world – the impression is of a literary mind calmly tracing its involutions towards their creative and spiritual source. There are no effusions, yet a sense of newborn wonderment pervades the text. Curiously, Murnane has arrived at a conception of his project that closely resembles that of the philosophical school of phenomenology, which concerns itself with the description of objects as they present themselves to consciousness.

Of course, novels that eschew the responsibilities of narrative can be hard going. A writer without inclination or ability to hold a reader’s interest by conventional means must devise alternatives, or risk adding to the mountain of noble failures that break out of the cage of realism only to perish of exposure. At first I found Border Districts entirely captivating – a genuinely meditative experience – but by the second half I struggled to concentrate on the turnings and associations of Murnane’s mental imagery. Murnane seems either not to know or (more likely) no longer care when he’s being a bore. The reader might feel like the hapless girlfriend of the narrator’s youth who, over a long bus journey, endures a monologue so long and tiresome that she ends the relationship. Another way to look at it is that Gerald Murnane has devoted his life to paring down the form in which he expresses the concerns to which he has been unstintingly faithful and, in return, asks that we exert ourselves to a kind of concentration that, for those of us more partial to the distractions of the age than Murnane, risks vanishing over the horizon of lost time.