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The Reclusive Giant of Australian Fiction

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On most evenings this past spring, the man who lives across the street sat at his small desk, turned on the lamp, and began to write as the light faded. The white curtains in his room were seldom drawn. From where I sat, I had a clear view of him, and he, were he to look up from his writing, would have had a clear view of a house across the street, where a woman with dark hair and a faintly olive complexion was seated by a window, watching him write. At the moment he glanced up from her page, the woman supposed him to be 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 that grow steadily more crowded with works to explain away Time.”

On certain evenings, the watching woman speculated that the writing man might be the author of the sentence, the reclusive Australian writer Gerald Murnane. She thought this even though Murnane lived thousands of miles away, in Goroke, a town of some three hundred people, in eastern Victoria, and even though the man, with his bunched silver hair and his wasting English face, looked nothing like the black- and-white photograph in front of her, on the cover of one of his books. The photograph showed an older man wearing a clean white shirt and seated in a dark chair, with one hand holding the other in his lap. He was scowling at a point just beyond the lower border of the photograph. The woman speculated that he might have been scowling at the photographer’s shoes, or at a misshapen stain on the floor. Or perhaps he was not scowling at a shoe or a stain but, rather, concentrating on an image he had caught sight of in his mind’s eye from her. For him, that image would not have been here—the room in which the photograph was taken at the precise moment the photographer released the camera’s shutter. It would have been there—the foreground of his mind, a fictional place, set at a fictional distance from where the author writes and the reader reads and the photographer takes a picture.

During the years the woman was studying literature in school, she had taken a class on fiction and the mind. Almost all the assigned readings were by the renowned Russian scholar of the novel, Mikhail Bakhtin. When trying to explain when and where a novel took place, Bakhtin spoke of the “chronotope,” the peculiar fusion of time and space which created and saturated the invisible landscape of fiction, shaping the thoughts of all who dwelled in it. In the classical epoch, man’s speech and his thoughts of him were directed outward, to people who gathered to listen in the squares and the agoras. Yet the centuries that followed had warped man’s public essence of him, making him aware of the possibilities of a private life of the mind. He had grown secretive and shameful, split between his inner and his outer existences of him, a core and a shell. The landscape inside his mind had broken loose from the landscape outside it. Man, Bakhtin wrote, in a formulation that seemed to distill all the pathos and the possibility of our silences and concealments, had become “drenched in muteness and invisibility. And with them entered loneliness.”

The idea of ​​the chronotope had returned to the woman while she read 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 on the plains hoping to capture the way of life of the plainsmen and, through it, the meaning of the landscape. But he had discovered that neither their speech nor their thought of him could be assimilated to the visible and audible impressions of his medium of him; that each plainsman had his own understanding of the shape and the significance of the landscape; and that the true substance of each plainsman’s life was nothing anyone could hear or see but the distance he felt between his younger self and the man he was now. The narrator, his film of him abandoned, spent his days in the library, surrounded by great works on Time about the distance between the memory of an anticipated happiness and the perceived disappointments of the present. These were lonely books which some readers would have called novels, but which the plainsmen called moral philosophy.

As for Bakhtin, so for Murnane: a passage of fiction is a series of utterances that promise access to a time and a space that could never be realized outside of prose—a place whose autonomy grants it a pleasure and a mystery entirely its own. Recalling the plains one evening, I called my husband into the room where I was sitting, so that he might look at the writing man. In a concerned 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 this whole time.

Gerald Murnane was born in 1939 in Coburg, a northern suburb of Melbourne, the son of a devoted, if unsuccessful, gambler on horse races. He was raised Catholic, which, as he has reflected, meant for a long time believing in the reality of men and women he could not see. When he turned eighteen, he entered a seminary. It took him fourteen weeks to leave and a few years more to lose his faith completely. During the next two decades, he taught primary school, edited technical publications, and married a woman called Catherine. They had three sons, and Murnane became, in his words of him, a househusband, who wrote in the hours he was not cleaning or caring for the children. His first two novels by him, “Tamarisk Row” (1974) and “A Lifetime on Clouds” (1976), were published to moderate acclaim. After six years of struggle and rejection, he published “The Plains,” his best-known book, whose dazzling merger of mirage and reality marked a turning point in his career. Four times, he has claimed to have written the last book he would ever write: in 1991, a year after he published “Velvet Waters”; in 2005, the year he published “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 fortunate that he has not yet made good on this claim. His inability to stop writing has resulted in a voice that has spoken in an almost unbroken tenor across some fifteen strange and brilliant books; a voice in which one hears a different notion of life’s time than what can be measured by counting the years that elapsed from the day of one’s birth to the day of one’s death. In part, his work is marked by its recurring subject matter, the details that Murnane has claimed “wink” at him, demanding his attention from him. In his youth, there were the glass marbles he lined up on a rug and pushed around an improvised course, envisioning their swirl of colors as the racing liveries of horses. In his adolescence, there was an idea of ​​America created by listening to music on the radio and reading Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” In his adulthood, there were dreams of colored glass, the vulnerability of his young sons, and the novels of Emily Brontë, Thomas Hardy, and Marcel Proust, whose “À la Recherche du Temps Perdu” he has read regularly, and which the narrator of one of his books goes so far as to copy passages from in longhand. And, throughout, there are the several hundred women with whom he falls in love, to whom he never speaks, and for whom he seems to write, as if to insist that the relationship between reader and writer is one of benevolent voyeurism.

By design, Murnane’s books do not reward discussion of plot, characterization, or historical setting. Beginning with “The Plains,” most of them concern the twinned acts of reading and of writing about the act of reading. This means that they are, in essence, a record of the thinking that takes place when one mind must struggle, in a sometimes pleasant, sometimes maddening, sometimes revelatory way, to discern the pattern of meaning that has been laid out by another. Murnane has referred to what he writes as true fiction. True fiction, he has claimed, is “an account of certain of the contents of the mind of the narrator.” It is a report of the narrator’s “contemplation of what did happen or what did not happen or what might have happened or what can never happen.”

The act of contemplation is rendered in a compact and highly finished style that distinguishes Murnane both from his predecessor Proust and from his contemporaries W. G. Sebald, J. M. Coetzee, Jon Fosse, and Rachel Cusk. Murnane has described himself as a technical writer, and his outspoken and fastidious devotion to grammar steers a great deal of the thinking his narrators perform. This thinking is usually about the nature or the essence of fiction’s relation to life, and it often begins with verbs of supposition. “I, who dislikes the word imaginewould prefer to use such an expression as speculate about,” reports the narrator of “A Million Windows.” “Speculate,” “suppose,” “presume,” and “seem”—as in “I seem to recall”—all shift narrative into the subjunctive mood, in which ambitions, conjectures, and longings reign.

The mood is enhanced by the sudden appearance of the perfect continuous conditional tense, which considers not what was, or what had been, but what would have been, or might have been, in certain secluded corners of the narrator’s mind. And, in these corners, one also finds a series of smaller, but no less essential, repetitions that hint at how far fiction may range from fact: the avoidance of proper names when referring to historical figures or locations, or the application of adjectives like “certain” or “so-called,” 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:

A man and a woman, husband and wife, were standing in the main square of a town such as might have been depicted, fifty or more years ago, in one or another so-called article about one or another country in Central America in one or another issue of the National Geographic Magazine. The time was probably mid-afternoon, and the air was surely hot. The man and the woman debated several matters during their time in the square. Once, at least, the woman struck the man and was struck in return. None of the disputes between the man and the woman had been resolved when he and she became a male and a female jaguar, or it may have been a male and a female hummingbird or a male and a female lizard.

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