The first time I heard about Gerald Murnane was this time last year. We were driving back to Sydney from rural Victoria. We had passed Bendigo but not Violet Town. My boyfriend sat in the front seat and two friends in the back seat. For a long while there wasn’t much except brown grasslands on both sides. They were oppressively flat. My friend, Riley, leaned forward from the back seat to ask if I’d read this writer, Gerald Murnane. I haven’t, I said. You should, he said. He’s great. And very funny.
Murnane is ‘great’ in many senses. He’s a master of prose, having once said he wouldn’t rank himself as great in anything except craftsmanship, where “[his] sentences are the best-shaped of any sentences written by any writer of fiction in the English language during [his] lifetime.” His narrators also explore those famously ‘great’ dilemmas of philosophy such as how we know things and experience being in the world. He has also (intentionally or unintentionally) produced an image of himself as a ‘great’ author. He is depicted as an austere genius who obsessively follows horse racing and keeps files of his own biographical artefacts, keeps his mobile phone in the boot of his car, and refuses to leave Australia because he dislikes travel.
Murnane is also funny, but in less obvious ways. His most recent and self-proclaimed final work Border Districts features a narrator who has moved to a small town to “guard [his] eyes”. By this he means he will refuse to look at things directly in order to get closer to their true essence. He will only look through glances and sideways views, which he believes reveal more and expose him less. In one instance, he visits the restored house of a childhood friend and notices the stained glass in the front door and other bordering panes. Months later, he returns with a roll of film to take multiple photos of every window of the house. When they’re produced, he looks at the photos, all laid out on a table, from the very corner of his study.
This narrator is characteristic of Murnane’s leading men. Wandering and melancholic loners, geniuses that are obsessed with experiencing the sublime, they are driven by a Romantic masculinity. The narrator wanders alone through a mental landscape of his creation, drawing attention to his genius through references to Shelley and others, all in pursuit of the sublime – “in order to observe the life and death of mental entities.” This masculinity can feel outdated, not least because the narrator makes a point of interacting with women primarily as domestic objects or narrative functions.
It is often hard to know whether to take the narrator seriously, especially in these interactions with women. He chooses his first girlfriend because she looked like a “thoughtful person who would rather listen than chatter” – which she does – to “all the thousands of words” that he speaks to her. In the end, he is whipped into a frenzy of speech upon sensing that she will get bored of him – which she does – even though he has carefully orchestrated for her to sit on the window seat of the bus so she can have a nice view as she listens.
The narrator takes his mental entities very seriously. At the reception of a wedding he leaves the main party to find his radio so he can listen to a horse race, but he’s stopped by the sight of the wrap-around veranda of the house, which overwhelms him with emotion. He sits down, imagining he is the owner of a vast estate and a horse in the race. He gives himself up to this pretence, imagining himself waiting for a phone call with the race results. Deep in thought, he misses the race he left the party to listen to.
One explanation for the Romantic masculinity in Murnane’s narrators is that they represent the author’s repressed desire. There are certainly many unattainable women in his fiction. In 2012, J.M. Coetzee wrote about Murnane for the New York Review of Books that the author had in fact “entered [his] twenties...lack[ing] the skills that enabled most other young men of [his] age to acquire steady girlfriends or even fiancées and wives.” Coetzee draws on Murnane’s religious upbringing as evidence of his repressed desires and concludes that Murnane’s narrators vocalise the desires Murnane himself is prevented from expressing.
I’m not sure that Coetzee gives Murnane enough credit here. Murnane has expressed a strong disbelief in the concept of the unconscious as well as an immense distaste for the idea that his narrators express any thoughts of the ‘implied’ author or the ‘actual’ author. Further, it seems that Murnane in his actual life eventually overcame this purported lack of skills, having enjoyed a long and by all accounts happy marriage and family life. It seems unlikely that he would use his writing as the place to explore repressed desire.
A year after Coetzee wrote his essay, Kate Foord pointed out in Australian Feminist Studies that the elusive woman in Murnane’s writing might instead be a satire of nationhood in Australia. In Foord’s reading, the image of the woman in The Plains is an “always unattainable object of desire” in the Lacanian sense, relying on being unattainable for its attractiveness, just like nationhood. In this way, she says, The Plains is making a joke at the expense of the reader. In the same way, Border Districts can be seen as making a joke, but this time at the expense of the narrator.
Murnane’s narrator repeatedly makes a fool of himself. He reminisces at length about the author photograph of a female biographer of George Gissing. The woman is very important to him and has been for a long time – but he can’t recall her name. He can only refer to her as the biographer of George Gissing. She’s important to him because he believes may be privy to visions of God or an afterlife because she appears to be looking at something no one else can see in the photo.
Nearness to God has never been easy for the narrator. His mind is still full of images from his religious schooling where he was ashamed of his weak faith. He wished as a child he could ask other boys at school what they thought in their visits to the Blessed Sacrament – though he knows this to be kind of pervy – just to see if he was doing it right. Indeed, the sublime is always just out of reach for our hero. Even when warned as a youth not to read widely for fear of atheism, he goes ahead and does so, losing his shaky faith the day he reads Thomas Hardy for the first time.
Murnane’s writing is funny in a way that is full of sadness. In striving to build an image of a Byronic hero, his narrator contradicts and exposes himself as nothing of the sort. Border Districts could be read as an expression of either Murnane’s or the narrator’s Romantic masculinity. But Murnane’s humour points us to read it differently: as a portrait of a man who is both melancholy and genius enough to recognise his own ridiculousness.
Caitlan Cooper-Trent is an assistant at Australia's largest and oldest literary agency and a Masters of English student at the University of Sydney.