Two New Books From Australia, Unconstrained by Literary Convention

Posted June 18, 2018 6:15 p.m. EDT

Born in 1939, Gerald Murnane is an Australian author of 14 books of memoir and fiction, each of which is wonderfully unusual in that it takes as its focus the mental images Murnane sees while he writes, the scenery surrounding those images and the way one mental image will lead to another and then another. Murnane’s books, apart from his early novel “The Plains,” aren’t about anything in the way that most fiction is about events and action among characters whose motivations interest the reader. Rather, the few thousand pages that Murnane has produced since his 1975 debut, “Tamarisk Row,” are a record of what he has seen when he tried to look at the place that is his own mind, and the effort of a lifetime that it has been for him to explore the inner reaches of this place through writing about it. What kind of place is Murnane’s mind? In the lovely story “In Far Fields,” he sees an image of himself describing his mind to a student as a way of explaining to her (and the reader) how he writes: “I would then go on to tell my student that my mind consisted of only images and feelings; that I had studied my mind for many years and had found in it nothing but images and feelings; that a diagram of my mind would resemble a vast and intricate map with images for its small towns and with feelings for the roads through the grassy countryside between the towns. Whenever I had seen in my mind the image that I had begun to write about just then … I had felt the strong feelings leading from that image far out into the grassy countryside of my mind toward other images, even though I might not yet have seen any of those other images. I did not doubt … that one after another detail of one after another of those other images would appear in my mind while I went on writing about the image that I had begun to write about.”

Murnane describes this image-world in such a way that those images he “might not yet have seen” will materialize in plain sight quite suddenly, as if they had stepped out from a hiding place behind those images that Murnane had already begun to describe. An image in Murnane’s prose has the quality of an image in colored glass: One both sees the image and sees through the image simultaneously.

Though the focus of Murnane’s work has always been the clear witnessing of what is before his mind’s eye, the part of his field of vision that has held Murnane’s interest has changed with time. One can see this by comparing the opening of his 1982 work, “The Plains,” with that of his latest, “Border Districts,” which follows the observations of a narrator (a version of Murnane) who has moved to a town at the border of Victoria in later life.

“Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains,” begins “The Plains,” “I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.” Looking here is farsighted; emphasis is on the distant, wide-open plains of Australia. Murnane’s visible world was a far-off veil pleading to be pulled away to reveal higher orders of meaning.

In contrast, “Border Districts” begins: “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.” Murnane’s fascination is now in what appears at the edge of his vision: the border separating what is glimpsed at the very brink of sight and what is just on the far side of seeing. This turn reflects Murnane’s learning “to study in all seriousness matters that another person might dismiss as unworthy, trivial, childish.”

The images that have always attracted Murnane remain the focus of “Border Districts”: horse racing (both Murnane and his father were devoted to the sport, as gamblers and fans); prismatic objects like marbles and stained glass; Roman Catholic ritual and iconography (Murnane considered joining the priesthood before losing his faith as a young man); the parts of certain books that continue to have a place among the images in his mind; the landscape of the Victoria region of Australia where Murnane has lived all his life. “Border Districts,” like other examples of Murnane’s late work, is particularly interested in the reason certain images have remained in his mind while others have disappeared or been drained of color. Why, he wonders, does the mind winnow some and spare others?

“Stream System,” which gathers Murnane’s short fiction from 1980 to 2002, affords a valuable look at his development as a writer. Murnane’s earlier stories show the beginnings of his mature style as well as his struggles to attain it. “Land Deal” (1980) and “Stone Quarry” (1986) still lean on artifice taken from other writers, particularly that of a dream nested inside another dream, as found in the work of Jorge Luis Borges.

And in the early stories Murnane doesn’t always trust the reader in the way that he does later. In the 1988 story “Finger Web,” he writes about a man listening to a soldier tell a story: “The man in this story understood that the soldier was not now trying to make him see a map in his mind but was afraid. The man understood that the soldier was afraid of telling the end of his story because it was the story of something that had changed him from one sort of soldier and man into another sort.” Here Murnane draws the conclusion that the soldier has been transformed for the reader, rather than allowing the reader to come to that conclusion for himself. Once he trusts wholly in his own method, his short works have the same concentrated excellence as his longer fiction.

Reading Murnane, one cares less about what is happening in the story and more about what one is thinking about as one reads. The effect of his writing is to induce images in the reader’s own mind, and to hold the reader inside a world in which the reader is at every turn encouraged to turn his or her attention to those fast flocking images.

While I read “Border Districts,” I saw in my mind an image of a sentence in Tarjei Vesaas’ novel “The Birds,” which tells of Mattis, a purehearted naif, and his relationship with his sister, Hege. At one point, feeling that Hege is speaking to him as if he were a lesser person, Mattis demands something remarkable of his sister: “Talk to me like you talk to other people.”

Since I first read Mattis’ injunction, I’ve considered it a demand that should be made of every writer: Develop a voice so clear, so unaffected, that it’s a voice for everyone, unencumbered by the intrusions of any foreign or adopted artfulness. The image of this demand stayed before my eyes as I read because Murnane’s is one of the clearest examples of such a voice I’ve ever encountered.

Publication Notes:

‘Stream System:

The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane’

By Gerald Murnane

548 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Paper, $18.

‘Border Districts:

A Fiction’

By Gerald Murnane

132 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $22.