A Writer’s Writer Speaks

In my estimation, Gerald Murnane is arguably Australia’s greatest living writer of fiction and probably one of the greatest currently at work anywhere in the world. Yesterday, I enjoyed the rare pleasure of listening to Murnane speak at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. Ordinarily, I would avoid such an event; I dislike the often superficial and self-congratulatory atmosphere of literary festivals. Late last year, however, I caught an ABC Radio interview with Murnane in which he discussed his most recent work of fiction, Barley Patch, and I was so struck by the unhesitating, unashamed, and yet entirely amiable way in which he discussed the nature of his fiction that I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear him speak in person. At the outset of that 2009 interview, the interviewer, Peter Mares, noted that Murnane has often been called “a writer’s writer” and he opened the interview by asking Murnane how he reacts to that designation. To his credit, Murnane took the opportunity to respond to that rather insipid question as a means of opening up a more sophisticated discussion of what he actually writes:

Gerald Murnane: It’s flattering. I don’t sit down and think that the next piece of writing that I do will be a writer’s piece of writing, but it seems to come out that way. I’m answering, I think, a question that I might have anticipated from you — well, it certainly comes from other people. They say to me: ‘Why doesn’t your fiction contain such staple things as dialogues…?’

Peter Mares: Plot?

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

Peter Mares: I think the term ‘writer’s writer’ could be seen as a kind of backhanded compliment in a way. It’s almost a bit of a warning sign, isn’t it, that these are not your average books, if you like, these are not necessarily easy books to read…?

Gerald Murnane: Well, exactly, that you won’t see… It’s not going to be easy for you to pick up a book that starts as Barley Patch starts and see a film script or see a film unrolling before your eyes. It’s certainly not my purpose when I write but it seems as though I do require people to make a little bit more effort than they would normally with some sorts of books.

Peter Mares: And you do, in fact, in Barley Patch talk about attentive readers and careful readers. Or careful readers, I think, and hasty readers.

Gerald Murnane: Well, the same distinction. The hasty reader wants to see a film unrolled before his or her eyes. The careful reader wants to think: ‘What exactly is happening? What is this extraordinary…? It is a complicated processes whereby I sit here and read these words and things take place in my mind as a result of something that took place in a funny little suburban room five years ago when Gerald Murnane sat down and pretended to be another sort of person and wrote…’ and so we go and the complications unfold, as you can see me waving my arms here to illustrate.

Until I caught that interview, I had never heard a writer of that very particular sort of fiction champion it in a national forum without feeling the need to also defend or excuse it. There was no timid concession that such fiction won’t suit the tastes of every reader, nor was there any lip-service paid to the notion that “mainstream” literary fiction is valuable even if the author’s own work stands far outside the mainstream. There was instead an unapologetic but somehow humble matter-of-factness about Murnane: a gentle self-assuredness that suggested, to me, an assumption on the part of the author that he owes no explanations of why he writes what he writes to anyone who is not already disposed towards reading it. I found that refreshing.

Barley Patch, I should say, is a unique, idiosyncratic, and wholly compelling work of fiction. Even so, as is probably the case with many other admirers of Murnane’s work, I still hold the most enthusiasm for his masterpiece The Plains. Originally published in 1982, this remarkably disciplined metafiction came into being as a novel-length fragment of what was intended to be a much longer work that Murnane never completed. It opens with the unnamed narrator, who self-identifies as a filmmaker, recalling the time he once spent in the vast interior of Australia, which, in this novel, comprises an independent inland republic populated by a community of landowners who spend their days obsessing over the metaphysics of their environment:

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.

The Plains, however, is not about the filmmaker’s actual efforts to interpret this landscape so much as it is about the hopelessness of the interpretive exercise and the complexities of the filmmaker’s compulsion to interpret the landscape anyway:

I had unpacked my suitcases some hours earlier. Now my desk was stacked high with folders of notepaper and boxes of cards and an assortment of books with numbered tickets between their pages. On top of the stack was a medium-sized ledger labelled:

    • THE INTERIOR
    • (FILMSCRIPT)
    • MASTER KEY TO CATALOGUE OF
    • BACKGROUND NOTES
    AND INSPIRATIONAL MATERIAL

I pulled out a bulky folder labelled Occasional Thoughts — Not Yet in Catalogue and wrote in it…

Nicholas Birns, in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, fills in the spaces:

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. No names of people, or places, are given or asked for. Searches for possibilities are immured in library catalogs. And the filmmaker never makes the film — though the landowners permit him to linger, taking notes for it.

Here, then, is a man who sees himself as a filmmaker but who never actually shoots a reel of film, instead spending his time writing notes that no-one will ever read outlining the possible content of a film that no-one will ever see. This situation, I think, makes The Plains quite a unique work of metafiction. Much metafictional literature is characterised by a fascination with literature itself: it is inward-looking simply because it is drawn to look inwards and interested in what it finds there. The Plains, however, is characterised by a frustration with the shortcomings of an artform other than literature, and only becomes fascinated with literature as a result of that frustration: it is inward-looking because it is the work of a man with an interest in moving images who ultimately finds moving images to be an inadequate means of conveying what he wants to convey about the plains, and who thereafter turns to literature instead as a means of both conveying what he wants to convey about the plains and exploring the inadequacy of moving images to that purpose. So this literature unfolds upon itself as it ponders its own becoming and attempts to account for its not becoming something entirely different — with the result being the exploration of a landscape in impressionistic rather than descriptive terms, even though the impressions conveyed are described as if they were landscape features:

In the years when my work was most often interrupted by my patron’s fondness for scenes, there might have been a handful left of those supporters who talked knowingly sometimes of the neglected filmmaker preparing his great work in the seclusion of the library. They would have been the least likely of anyone at a scene to be deceived by the sight of me pointing an empty camera towards some everyday sight. Perhaps they felt obliged to make some comment on the irrelevance of such things as lenses and light waves to the creation of those images of mine that no one had yet laid eyes on. But usually they joined unnoticed in the general amusement to see, posed as one eager to record the play of light at some moment of an uneventful afternoon, the very man who allowed whole seasons to pass while he sat behind drawn blinds in the least-visited rooms of a silent library.

I seldom wondered what opinion of me predominated among the people who watched and smiled as I took my awkward grip on some antiquated camera and stared obligingly at some empty zone ahead of me. I was far more concerned with those who might one day examine the faulty prints in my patron’s jumbled collection and see me as a man with my eyes fixed on something that mattered. Even the few who had heard or read of my efforts to discover a fitting landscape — even they might have supposed that I sometimes looked no further than my surroundings. No one afterwards could point to a single feature of whatever place I stared at. It was still a place out of sight in a scene arranged by someone who was himself out of sight. But anyone might have decided that I recognised the meaning of what I saw.

And so, on those darkening afternoons, at those scenes whose scenery seemed more often pointed at than observed, whenever the camera in my hand put me in mind of some young woman who might see me years afterwards as a man who saw further than others, I would always ask my patron at last to record the moment when 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.

At the start of his discussion yesterday, Murnane mentioned that only a few minutes earlier he had received a phone call advising him that a French translation of The Plains will be released later this year after having been rejected by one French publisher after another for the better part of twenty years. I was stunned to learn that the French, of all possible readers, had not warmed to this novel. As a single word or a single image opens up for the narrator a flood of memories and thought-associations which he then pursues to their ends without losing sight of his original purpose, the continual unfolding of the novel makes it so recognisably Proustian that I would have imagined it to be much more at home in France — or in Europe in general — than it could possibly be in Australia. Murnane himself expressed the same sentiments, and even went on to name In Search of Lost Time as his favourite work of fiction and Proust as one of only three writers from whose work he can still recall specific scenes, passages, and ideas. The other two writers, he continued, were Richard Jefferies and George Borrow, whose writings he is currently re-reading, and drawing on, as he goes about writing a new work of fiction.

On that note, Murnane revealed that he has not one but two new works of fiction in the pipeline: a completed novella, 30,000 words in length, entitled A World of Books, and a novel currently half-finished entitled Border Districts. Of the first book, Murnane said very little except that it is indeed a work of fiction despite the title, and that it will elaborate on the passage in Barley Patch in which the narrator notes that all people and objects in any work of literature are no more than images in the mind of the writer and contends that there is no point in pretending otherwise. Of the second book, Murnane stressed that the title has nothing to do with the contents — he simply enjoys the sound of the words “border districts,” which he took from the name of a local football team in the region of rural Victoria that he currently calls home. He added that the book will have something to do with the interplay between religious fidelity and iconography — that is, spiritual devotion as expressed through stained-glass imagery — and that in writing it he has found himself concentrating on the contrast between his own “non-materialist atheism” and the reverent faith of his brother who serves as a priest.

All good news. But, of course, the true test of the value of yesterday’s discussion was not whether it left me impressed with Murnane himself so much as whether it enticed me to return to his work. It did, and I happily lost an afternoon to re-re-reading one of the two or three greatest novels ever to be published in this country:

I told the plainsmen that I was on a journey, which was true enough. I did not tell them the route I had followed to their town or the direction I might take when I left it. They would learn the truth when The Interior appeared as a film. In the meantime I let them believe I had begun my journey in a distant corner of the plains. And, as I hoped, no one doubted me or even claimed to know the district I had named. The plains were so immense that no plainsman was ever surprised to hear of their encompassing some region he had never seen. Besides, many places far inland were subject to dispute — were they part of the plains or not? The true extent of the plains had never been agreed on.

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. [They] were seldom impressed by outbursts of emotion or violent conflicts or sudden calamities. They supposed that the artists who presented such things had been beguiled by the noises of crowds or the profusions of shapes and surfaces in the foreshortened landscapes of the world beyond the plains. The plainsman’s heroes, in life and 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 — or the man who would never take even the one road that led away from his isolated farmhouse for fear that he would not recognise the place if he saw it from the distant vantage points that others used.

There were historians who suggested that the phenomenon of the plains themselves was responsible for the cultural differences between the plainsmen and Australians generally. The exploration of the plains had been the major event in their history. What had at first seemed utterly flat and featureless eventually disclosed countless subtle variations of landscape and an abundance of wildlife. Trying to appreciate and describe their discoveries, the plainsmen had become unusually observant, discriminating, and receptive to gradual revelations of meaning. Later generations responded to life and art as their forebears had confronted the miles of grassland receding into haze. They saw the world itself as one more in an endless series of plains.

ADDENDUM: The audience question that prompted Murnane to discuss his work-in-progress was posed by one of Murnane’s longstanding correspondents who also runs the blog Sixth In Line. She too has posted an account of yesterday’s discussion and of her history with Murnane.

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