The Australian writer Gerald Murnane has been lauded, by the New York Times magazine, as “the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of”; tipped for the Nobel Prize; and called, by Teju Cole, “a worthy heir to Beckett”. Over the course of four decades and 16 books, a cult following has developed around his phenomenologically intense, semi-autobiographical writing with its repeated themes of horseracing, Catholicism and the passage of light through coloured glass. Despite having won many awards including the Melbourne Prize for Literature, the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction and the Australia Council Emeritus Award, Murnane barely travels, has never flown in a plane, appears in public rarely and does not use a computer.
Now published in the UK for the first time, 1974’s Tamarisk Row was Murnane’s first work of fiction; last year’s Border Districts will, he has said, be his last. Of his other novels, the short, wilfully flat yet deeply enigmatic The Plains (1982) is probably his best-known outside Australia; a collection of essays, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, came out 14 years ago.
In a 2007 foreword to Tamarisk Row, Murnane describes the 10 years his debut took to produce: “When I was able to write no more than a few thousand words before giving up, I sometimes supposed I was incapable of writing a book-length work of fiction. I believe nowadays that I was incapable of writing what seemed to me a conventional book of fiction: a novel with a plot, with characters deserving to be called credible, and with numerous passages of direct speech”.
The resulting work certainly avoids these conventions, as did everything he wrote thereafter. Tamarisk Row is, at its most basic level, a semi-autobiographical account of the poor, Catholic upbringing of a boy named Clement Killeaton during the middle years of the last century in the fictional town of Bassett in northern Victoria. It is divided up into sections of varying lengths, headed with prosaic titles such as, “A boy teaches Clement some Catholic devotions” and “Clement thinks of the fiercest animals in Australia”.
Clement’s father, Augustine, is obsessed with horseracing. His gambling debts eventually ruin the family, but not before his son has inherited his obsession; he creates an imaginary landscape of racecourses and stud farms in the back yard and plays complex games with marbles whose colours represent not only certain feelings and memories hard to put into words but also the racing silks worn by jockeys.
Clement’s curiosity about the sacred mysteries of both the Catholic church and sex recall Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, as do Murnane’s endless sentences and paragraphs, Modernist sensibility, and interest in the ineffable minutiae of consciousness, vivid in childhood but something most of us are unaware of as adults except when our consciousness has been altered — during extreme illness, for example, or by drugs.
The resulting text does not describe so much as conjure the inner, existential experience of a boy whose imaginative touchstones include the grid pattern on an illustrated calendar and its relationship to the town in which he lives; a tin box owned by a neighbouring girl which, for obscure reasons, he thinks of as her “foxy glen”; the Blessed Virgin; the empty Australian grasslands; several resonant words and phrases including “lost streamlet” and “veils of foliage”; and the way light refracts through coloured glass, including (but not limited to) his collection of marbles.
If that all sounds a bit, well, trippy, it is — and in some ways, Border Districts is even trippier. Its unnamed narrator has moved, towards the end of his life, to a district “near the border”, where he intends to compile a “report” of his life, the result of which is the novel. Full of ponderous phrases such as “as it were” and “so to speak”, and metatextual references like “After I had written the phrase essence of personages just now . . . ”, it’s a meanderingly precise, lugubriously comic and at times transcendent rendering of the workings of thought. Seemingly inconsequential but apparently formative memories and sense-impressions — some involving horseracing, of course, and Catholicism, and lots more coloured glass — are tracked to their source weeks or sometimes decades before. As the novel progresses, these chains of thought become more abstruse, more contorted and more self-referential, threatening at last to eat their own tail.
“I cannot recall having believed, even as a child, that the purpose of reading fiction was to learn about the place commonly called the real world,” Murnane writes in the foreword to Tamarisk Row. Yet his work insists on the reality of the inner world — perhaps even its primacy. “This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional,” the narrator asserts in Border Districts. For “reality” is a product of our sensing, imagining, remembering minds; to describe it, Murnane looks not outwards, but in.
Tamarisk Row, by Gerald Murnane, And Other Stories, RRP£10, 291 pages
Border Districts, by Gerald Murnane, And Other Stories, RRP£8.99, 144 pages
Melissa Harrison is author of ‘All Among the Barley’ (Bloomsbury)
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