The reclusive giant of Australian fiction
Most evenings last spring, the man who lives across the street sat down at his small desk, turned on the lamp, and began to write as the light dimmed. The white curtains in her bedroom were rarely drawn. From where I sat I had a clear view of him, and he, if he had looked up from his writing, would have had a clear view of a house across the street, where found a woman with dark hair and a slightly olive complexion. sitting by a window, watching him write. The moment he looked up from his page, the woman assumed he was contemplating the look, or perhaps the sound, of the sentence he had just written. The sentence was this: “Since then, I have tried to avoid those rooms which are becoming more and more crowded with works to explain Time.”
On some nights, the nightlight speculated that the man writing may be the author of the phrase, reclusive Australian writer Gerald Murnane. She thought that even though Murnane lived thousands of miles away in Goroke, a town of about three hundred people in eastern Victoria, and even though the man, with his curly silver hair and English face emaciated, looked nothing like the black-and-white photograph in front of her, on the cover of one of her books. The photograph showed an older man dressed in a clean white shirt and sitting in a dark chair, one hand holding the other in his lap. He was scowling at a point just beyond the bottom edge of the photograph. The woman speculated that he may have scowled at the photographer’s shoes or a misshapen spot on the floor. Or maybe he wasn’t frowning at a shoe or a stain, but rather concentrating on an image he had glimpsed in his mind. For him, this image would not have been here— the room in which the photograph was taken at the exact moment the photographer released the camera shutter. It would have been the– the foreground of his mind, a fictional place, located at a fictional distance from where the author writes, the reader reads and the photographer takes a photo.
During the years when the woman studied literature at school, she had taken a course on fiction and the mind. Almost all of the assigned readings were done by the famous Russian scholar of the novel, Mikhail Bakhtin. In trying to explain when and where a novel takes place, Bakhtin spoke of the “chronotope,” the particular fusion of time and space that created and saturated the invisible landscape of fiction, shaping the thoughts of all who read it. lived. In classical times, man’s speech and thought were directed outwards, to the people who gathered to listen in squares and agoras. Yet the centuries that followed had distorted the public essence of man, making him aware of the possibilities of a private life of the mind. He had become secret and shameful, divided between his inner existence and his outer existence, a core and a shell. The landscape inside his mind had become detached from the landscape outside. The man, Bakhtin wrote, in a formulation that seemed to distill all the pathos and the possibility of our silences and dissimulations, had become “soaked in silence and invisibility. And with them came loneliness.
The idea of the chronotope had come to the woman while she was reading Gerald Murnane’s third book, “The Plains”. The word “Time” was capitalized throughout the novel, evidence of the same reverence that led other men to capitalize the word “God.” The narrator of “The Plains” was a filmmaker. He had arrived in the plains with the hope of grasping the way of life of the men of the plain and, through him, the sense of the landscape. But he had discovered that neither their speech nor their thought could be assimilated to the visible and audible impressions of his medium; that each plainsman had his own understanding of the form and meaning of the landscape; and that the real substance of every plainsman’s life was nothing that no one could hear or see, but the distance he felt between his young self and the man he now was. The narrator, his film abandoned, spent his days in the library, surrounded by great works on Time on the distance between the memory of an anticipated happiness and the perceived disappointments of the present. They were solitary books which some readers would have called novels, but which the people of the plain called moral philosophy.
As for Bakhtin, the same goes for Murnane: a passage of fiction is a sequence of statements that promise access to a time and a space that could never be realized outside of prose – a place whose his autonomy gives it a pleasure and a mystery of its own. One evening, remembering the plains, I called my husband into the room where I was sitting, so that he could look at the man who was writing. In a worried voice, my husband informed me that the man was not, in fact, writing. He was watching television. It was likely that he had been watching television all this time.
Gerald Murnane was born in 1939 in Coburg, a northern suburb of Melbourne, the son of a devoted, albeit unsuccessful, horse racing player. He was raised a Catholic, which, as he says, has long meant believing in the reality of men and women he couldn’t see. At eighteen, he entered the seminary. It took him fourteen weeks to leave and a few more years to completely lose his faith. Over the next two decades, he taught elementary school, edited technical publications, and married a woman called Catherine. They had three sons, and Murnane became, in his words, a homemaker, who wrote during the hours when he was not cleaning or caring for children. Her first two novels, “Tamarisk Row” (1974) and “A Lifetime on Clouds” (1976), were published with moderate success. After six years of struggle and rejection, he published “Les Plaines”, his best-known book, whose dazzling fusion between mirage and reality marked a turning point in his career. Four times he claimed to have written the last book he would write: in 1991, a year after publishing “Velvet Waters”; in 2005, the year he released “Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs”; in 2017, the year he published “Border Districts”; and in 2022, with the publication of “Last Letter to a Reader” (And Other Stories).
The world is lucky he hasn’t acted on that claim yet. His inability to stop writing resulted in a voice that spoke with almost uninterrupted tenor through fifteen strange and brilliant books; a voice in which we hear a different notion of the time of life than that which can be measured by counting the years which pass from the day of one’s birth until the day of one’s death. In part, his work is marked by his recurring subject matter, the details that Murnane claimed “winked” at him, demanding his attention. In his youth, there were the glass marbles that he lined up on a carpet and pushed along an improvised course, envisioning their swirl of colors like the racing liveries of horses. In his teens, there was an idea of America created by listening to music on the radio and reading “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. As an adult, there were the dreams of stained glass, the vulnerability of his young sons, and the novels of Emily Brontë, Thomas Hardy and Marcel Proust, of which he regularly read “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu”, and that the narrator of one of his books goes so far as to copy passages by hand. And, throughout, there are the few hundred women he falls in love with, whom he never speaks to, and for whom he seems to write, as if to insist that the relationship between reader and writer is a relationship of benevolent voyeurism.
By design, Murnane’s books do not reward discussion of plot, characterization, or historical setting. From “Les Plaines”, most of them concern the paired acts of reading and writing on the act of reading. This means that they are, in essence, a record of the thought that takes place when a mind has to struggle, in ways that are sometimes pleasant, sometimes infuriating, sometimes revealing, to discern the pattern of meaning that has been traced by a other. Murnane called what he writes true fiction. True fiction, he asserted, is “a retelling of certain contents of the narrator’s mind”. This is a report from the narrator”contemplation what happened or what didn’t happen or what could have happened or what can never happen.
The act of contemplation is rendered in a compact and highly accomplished style that distinguishes Murnane both from his predecessor Proust and from his contemporaries WG Sebald, JM Coetzee, Jon Fosse and Rachel Cusk. Murnane has described himself as a technical writer, and his frank and meticulous dedication to grammar directs much of the thinking of his narrators. This reflection is usually about the nature or essence of fiction’s relationship to life, and it often begins with verbs of guesswork. “I who don’t like the word to imaginewould prefer to use an expression such as speculate on“, reports the narrator of “A Million Windows”. “Speculate”, “assume”, “presume” and “seem” – as in “I seem to remember” – all shift the narrative to the subjunctive, in which ambitions, conjectures and desires reign.
The mood is heightened by the sudden appearance of the perfect continuous conditional, which considers not what was or what had been, but what would have been or could have been in some isolated corner of the narrator’s mind. And, in these recesses, there is also a series of smaller, but no less essential repetitions that suggest just how far fiction can stray from fact: the avoidance of proper names when referring to characters or historical places, or the application of adjectives like “certain” or “supposedly”, or adverbs like “probably” or “surely”. The effect is a paradoxical sense of both particularity and indeterminacy, exposure and concealment.
Consider the opening paragraph of “A History of Books,” in which the narrator reads what sounds like a work of magical realism: