Books
Subscriber Only

Gerald Murnane: A great writer with a mind unlike any other

Two collections, of essays and stories, cement him as Australia’s biggest unknown writer

There’s something deeply paradoxical about Gerald Murnane and his work. He is Australia’s biggest unknown writer – frequently tipped for Nobel status, he has never attracted the attention of a wide readership. Last year we had the first UK and Irish publication of his earliest and most recent novels, which weren’t really novels. Now we have a collection of essays and a volume of stories, which – well. Read on.

To begin with, since the US publication of these books a few years ago, two of the stories (Stream System and Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs) have moved into the other volume and become essays. Indeed, one of them is considered so quintessential an example of Murnane’s essay chops that it has given the book its title. Yet it was definitely a story a couple of years ago. What happened?

All is explained by Murnane in his introduction to Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. “I should never have tried to write fiction or non-fiction or anything in between,” he sighs. “I should have left it to discerning editors to publish all my pieces of writing as essays.” To anyone who has read Murnane’s fiction, particularly late fiction such as Border Districts, this rings true.

Murnane himself describes his work more simply as 'a report of the contents of my mind'

JM Coetzee, with typical insight, sees all Murnane’s works as part of a larger project (“fiction” and “non-fiction” effectively indistinguishable) to seek to make sense of the experiences of a person who to all intents and purposes is (but strictly speaking is not) Murnane. Murnane himself describes his work more simply as “a report of the contents of my mind”.

This is clear from most of the stories in Collected Short Fiction, especially the later ones, where there is no real attempt to approach normal fictional structure, and the character through whose eyes we see things is “I” or “the man” or “he” or even “the chief character of this story”, whose age, predilections and experiences match Murnane’s.

Establishing connections

Sometimes he plays with our knowledge of the fictional or non-fictional status of these stories: The Interior of Gaaldine presents as an essay, and As It Were a Letter begins “On the day I began to write this piece of fiction...”, a phrase which the reader could fold and refold endlessly without ever reaching its final truth.

And what do the stories contain? What almost all of Murnane’s prose contains: the contemplation of images in his memory and an attempt to establish connections between them. But to say it reads like passages of dissociated memoir – which at times it does – is to overlook the smooth hypnosis of Murnane’s perfectly grammatical sentences (he is very particular about this) and their cumulative impact.

The story Emerald Blue, for example (which at more than 40,000 words really stretches the definition of “short fiction” – that’s not far off The Great Gatsby) takes in his schoolboy study of art, his love of Wuthering Heights, his first girlfriend, his work in a publishing house and – one of Murnane’s most reliable touchstones – horse racing. It is at the same time soothing and invigorating.

'After I've written each sentence I read it aloud ... and I don't begin to write the next sentence until I'm absolutely satisfied with the sound of the sentence I'm listening to'

Earlier stories are more varied in form, such as Land Deal, which reports a “purchase” of land from Aboriginal people by white settlers with as much tragic force as Paul Muldoon’s Meeting the British.

But it’s the essays-published-as-essays that are more immediately arresting. They provide eye-opening insight into Murnane’s methods and approach to writing, from the trivial but irresistible – he types everything he writes with just one finger – to the practical.

“After I’ve written each sentence I read it aloud. I listen to the sound of the sentence, and I don’t begin to write the next sentence until I’m absolutely satisfied with the sound of the sentence I’m listening to.”

‘Failed poet’

If this sounds like an arduous way of working, it fits with a man who sees himself as “a failed poet who turned to prose because it was easier to write”. It also chimes with what we learn about Murnane’s (to put it one way) unusual way of seeing things.

He is “described by my wife and several friends as the most organised person they have ever known”. He becomes “confused or even distressed whenever I find myself among streets or roads that are not arranged in a rectangular grid, or are so arranged but not so that the streets or roads run approximately north-south and east-west”. He cannot watch films because “I have trouble in following the storylines and making the necessary connections between the rapidly changing images”.

This seems like a portrait of neurodivergence, and so we begin to understand his desire – in fact he describes it in these pages as a compulsion – to review the images that are in his mind, and sort them, order them and connect them, endlessly.

And so Murnane’s writing exhibits finally what literature should: an insight into a way of seeing that is quite unlike our own.

Read More

Recommended