Australia’s long-term Nobel Laureate-in-waiting, Gerald Murnane is little known in the English-speaking world beyond his home country. He was published by Faber in the 1980s along with his countryman Peter Carey, but he attracted fewer sales and was quietly dropped. For my money Murnane is by far the better writer and British readers now have the chance to judge for themselves, with the first UK publication of two volumes that top and tail a long and productive career.
Before embarking on any consideration of the work, we should pause to consider the author himself because, in the densely populated field of literary eccentrics, Murnane has few equals. He lives in the remote Victoria township of Goroke, occupying a single cell-like room at the back of his son’s house, surrounded by an immense paper archive stored in multiple filing cabinets; he reportedly has no bed but keeps a folding cot in the shower room. In this austere space he writes his books on one of three manual typewriters, using one finger. He has never flown or swum; he seldom leaves his home state of Victoria and has never travelled outside Australia; he has no sense of smell; he dislikes cinemas, libraries, art galleries and theatres. He plays golf regularly and works behind the bar at his local club. He has never worn sunglasses.
He has a comprehensive knowledge of Australian horse racing and his most extraordinary achievement is not a work of fiction but something he calls ‘The Antipodean Archive’, an elaborate game that began when he was a child and that he now plays alone most nights. The game uses maps and marbles and voluminous notebooks containing detailed plans of imaginary racecourses on make-believe islands, the names of 1,500 trainers, comprehensive records of races run, the outcome of each based on a complex system derived from texts in which vowels and consonants from a random sentence yield points for each horse, coupled with methods of handicapping. All of this material is handwritten and fully indexed. A consuming interest in the subject supports his view that ‘all art, including music, aspires to the condition of horse-racing’. On the strength of such statements some critics claim that he should be regarded as an ‘outsider artist’, but his body of work thwarts any such facile classification.
Murnane has never seen fiction as a way of engaging with the real world and in his debut novel, Tamarisk Row (1974), he employs what he calls ‘considered narration’ – an approach in which the aim is to create and articulate ‘the narrator through whose mind the text is reflected’. This account of a 1940s Catholic boyhood in a small Australian town took ten years to write and is partly autobiographical: in the opening pages the nine-year-old Clement Killeaton painstakingly creates a model racecourse in the backyard of the family home, a sacerdotal act rendered in precise, sharply focused prose. There are no numbered chapters; each episode has a synoptic heading and the unanchored narrator moves freely between characters (or ‘personages’ in the author’s nomenclature), reporting their thoughts and actions in long and entrancingly lovely sentences. The effect, difficult to communicate with a short extract, is spellbinding.
Long before the first hot days of summer, the water dries up in the creek that comes from somewhere among the stony hills where the Killeatons sometimes go out on Sundays to look for the rare Bassett wax flower and appears suddenly at the ends of streets that might otherwise have wandered for miles or runs for short distances beside the single railway track that leads northwards before it becomes a kind of drain and disappears beneath the main streets in the centre of Bassett after which Clement does not know what happens to it although his father has told him that a certain deep gully that he has seen on the other side of the city is probably the same old creek.
Readers hungry for plot and character and that repugnant quality ‘relatability’ will feel short-changed. Murnane navigates his own internal and external territories with intense thought and understanding. He told the online magazine 3:AM, ‘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.’ His ‘fictions’ are direct reports from his own imagination and the radiant labyrinth of his memory, novels and stories that explore and question the processes of writing and reading. These offer rich rewards, though seldom conventional ones.
Border Districts (2017) is described on the cover as ‘a jewel of a farewell’, a claim belied by the appearance of Collected Short Fiction (2018), as well as A Season on Earth and Green Shadows and Other Poems (both published earlier this year, when the author turned eighty). A slender volume – barely novella-length, in fact – it opens thus: ‘Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just south 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’s evidence of a fine stylist in the phrase ‘I resolved to guard my eyes’, which manages to hold our attention without being too remarkable. The unspecified backwater township, the outsider perspective, the lack of any conventional plot markers or character notes and the self-conscious admission that this is writing about writing are all characteristically Murnanean. The narrator is a lapsed Catholic who, we learn, lost his faith while reading a Thomas Hardy novel and now broods on a stage in his life half a century ago, ‘when I read book after book of fiction in the belief that I would learn thereby matters of much importance not to be learned from any other kind of book’. By this late stage in his career the devices are well established: a triangulation between Murnane, the narrator and an implied but ambiguous author, the fragmentary material handled with serene assurance.
These two novels are portals of discovery to an important body of work. There are a dozen other books by Murnane, of which The Plains (1982) is arguably his masterpiece. Worth a punt, I’d say.